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Aamer Hussein reviews
by Iman Humaydan
translated by Michelle Hartman
Publishing Group, USA, 2014,
pbk, 154 pp, ISBN 9781566569620
mental poetics of memory
Myriam has memories scattered in three continents. She grew up in Lebanon, where she learned about love and family loyalties, and about loss (a brother, a lover, an unborn child). In her early twenties she moved with her family to Australia, and then, with her husband, to Kenya, where she seems to live between traumatic memories of war and death and haunting thoughts of other lives in a world that seems limited to her unsatisfying marriage and her Indian psychotherapist. She then decides to return to Beirut, ostensibly to deal with matters of property, but she seems to be on a search in a shattered present for the broken mirror of her past. It’s 1996, and her compatriots are struggling for some semblance of normality.
On her journey, she meets a returning expat, Nour, who doesn’t have memories of Lebanon. She finds some sort of relief in a passionate sexual relationship with him, but not enough to release her from her restless obsessions. Altogether different is her relationship with her childhood companion and first lover, Olga, who stayed on and witnessed what Myriam didn’t. There are phantoms, too: Maryam’s brother Baha, her lover George, and the many members of her extended Druze family. But there are also Australian stories of other lives to tell: in particular the story of her mother, who, after the death of her son and her flight from Lebanon, refused to speak Arabic again, and only found her voice in English. (As a result, Myriam’s passion for her language is deep and constant – she clings to it as a defence, and it’s the reason, perhaps, that she returns to a land where she can speak it freely and indulge in all its riches.)
Arabic is Iman Humaydan’s language of choice, though she’s well versed in English and French; she is emerging as one of the most interesting and subtle novelists of the Middle East, with her ability to evoke entire histories with a deft and minimalist touch. The reader, though, will have very little sense that this exquisite novel is a translation: Michele Hartman turns Humaydan’s intricate reflections on home and homelessness, emigration and belonging, war and ennui, into epigrammatic prose of an achieved simplicity that’s universal in the best way.
This is a novel with a complex structure and an understated though unexpected finale. We move with Myriam from present to past and back again, living within her mind for much of its length. In lesser hands the technique would be tricky; but to Humaydan’s credit, in a novel where most of the tragedies (war, death, loss of love) have already happened – and happened off the page – we always seem to know exactly where we are in Myriam’s biography. As in her superb earlier work, Wild Mulberries, which scattered clues about the history of the early twentieth century throughout its pages with subtlety and control, here, too, she gives us just enough chronological markers to be able to follow Myriam’s past with ease and only a moment’s pause to work out the dates on the novel’s elliptical calendar.
In spite of the novel’s preoccupation with truths buried in the past, and Myriam’s mental poetics of memory, its sections set in the present – the East African seaside, a book about Ottoman times glimpsed on a plane leaving Dubai airport, the war-pocked streets of Beirut – are depicted with almost cinematic vividness, and its portrayal of existential pain is visceral. No review can do this novel justice, but Humaydan’s greatest skill is her compelling ability to draw the reader deep into the maze of her tough, graceful fictions.
Published in Banipal 50 - Prison Writing