No Road to Paradise
by Hassan Daoud
translated by Marilyn Booth
Hoopoe Publishing, Cairo, 2016.
Pbk, 304 pages. £11.99 / $13.95
Facing up to
one’s life . . .
Hassan Daoud is the author of ten novels and three short story collections, and has recently been described as ‘one of Lebanon’s most important living writers’. No Road to Paradise, originally published in Arabic in 2013 as La Tariq ila al-Janna, is a work that can only serve to reinforce that view, having already (in the Arabic original) been awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2015. Set in rural Lebanon, and told in the first person, the novel explores the predicament of a Shi’ite rural imam who has failed to find fulfilment in either his religious or his family life. Confronted with a diagnosis of apparently terminal cancer, and forced to undergo a life-changing operation that leaves him impotent, he is led to question his religious values as he struggles to reassess his place in the world.
The narrator comes from a family of imams originally of some distinction, at least in the local context: ‘[his] grandfather Sayyid Murtada’s fatwa on how a husband could return to his wife after divorcing her was still known and talked about, as was his ode to the Imam Ali’ (p.131). The narrator’s father, however, did not write anything, or ‘utter anything that became part of a public legacy (p.132); and the narrator himself has inherited neither the piety nor the scholarship of his forebears; he took up his religious calling solely to please his family, and his religious books remain almost entirely unread. The sterility of his sham religious life is mirrored in his family situation: having consented to an arranged marriage, he finds himself bound to a wife whom he does not love, and of the three children he has had with her, two are deaf-mute boys. In the course of the narrative, his long-senile father dies, adding a further element of emotional deprivation to an already bleak existence.
In this seemingly remorseless sterile environment, almost the only obviously positive element is provided by the narrator’s brother’s widow, with whom the narrator is in love, and it is the progress of their relationship that to a large extent gives the novel coherence, enabling the author to give his narrative at least the semblance of a logical progression. To speak of a ‘relationship’ is perhaps to suggest too much, however, for though the narrator’s physical impotence does not put an end to his lust, it inevitably ends in frustration ‘That I had lost what I had lost in the operation didn’t lessen my desire for her’, he remarks: ‘No longer having it didn’t stop those images of her body from pursuing me. The physical longings were just as strong as before.’ Their intimate, physical encounter is described in sensuous detail, but a moment comes when she ‘suddenly, quickly became alert to the fact that what we were doing together had ended’ (p.210); declining a cup of coffee, the narrator leaves, pitched in every direction by a ‘messy blend of rapture and dis-ease’ as he drives home.
For the most part, this is a narrative that moves forward not so much on the basis of bold decisions or dramatic events as through enigmatic hints, through subtle shifts in the attitudes of the various players toward each other, and through the progress of the narrator’s inner struggles, conducted against the background of his progressive physical deterioration. Suffused with an almost English tone of understatement, essential actions are often reduced to the bare minimum: when the narrator’s father dies, for example, ‘I did not even have to turn his face toward Mecca, the direction of prayer. He had already that for himself, many days ago. That was how he had prepared himself to die, suppressing any wish he might have to give his side and shoulder a rest by turning onto his other side.’ (p160)
Despite the narrative being set in the specific Lebanese village of Shqifiyeh – and despite the obviously Shi’ite intellectual and geographical reference points – the novel probably tells us more about the human spirit, and about man’s emotions, reflections and fear in the face of imminent death, than it does about anything in rural Lebanon, or indeed, the Middle East as a whole. Toward the end of the work, however, a more immediate reality appears to intrude somewhat, as the imam’s mosque is all but taken over by what appear to be a group of Islamic fundamentalists. Although the process is described for the most part in elliptical terms, in line with the general tone and style of the work, the end result – as the narrator hands over his books to the group – seems ominously symbolic of contemporary events.
Although this novel has not met with universal approbation among reviewers, I personally found it one of the most powerful and impressive Arabic works that I have read in a long time, well deserving of the Naguib Mahfouz medal that it has already won. It has found in Marilyn Booth an English translator well worthy of the task, and her seamless translation deserves to be widely read.
Published in Banipal 60 - Alaa al-Deeb: A writer apart (Autumn/Winter 2017)
Reviewed by Paul Starkey
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