[New Directions; 2020]
Tr. from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette
Simultaneous, parallel narratives that are overlaid upon each other have been employed by writers from Henry James to William Faulkner to David Foster Wallace. In James, multiple narrative threads offer shifts in perspective that both illuminate and complicate his multifaceted characters. In Faulkner, concurrent narratives of members of the same community or family comment on how they are differently burdened by a shared past. Wallace superimposes stories of multiple characters to show how they are common in their loneliness, their ennui, and their psychic paralysis due to cultural forces of television and other forms of mass media. What is typical among these twinned and tripled narratives is the sense that each arc is a palimpsest, that its impressions are like watery memories rather than solid facts, that they are recorded in the mind but subject to modification, revision, and clarification. Adania Shibli, a Palestinian professor and author of three novels in Arabic, adopts a variation of this parallel narrative structure in her novel, Minor Detail, elegantly translated by Elisabeth Jaquette and published by New Directions. The novel is halved into two narratives of equal length, one after the other, and the first recounts an atrocity occurring precisely twenty-five years prior to the second. And through this daring and ingenious architecture, Shibli creates a text of resistance in which the second narrative seeks to recover the past events of the first from erasure.
Shibli tells both narratives through an absorbing style of methodical, dispassionate reportage with an obsessive attention to mundane detail, as if she were narrating a series of incidents documented on a video camera. Unlike the first-person narrative that follows, the first is told through a distant third-person perspective, in which we cannot access the mental spaces of any of the characters except for expressions of feeling and physical discomfort. The first narrative centers on an unstable unnamed Israeli officer who leads a group of soldiers on a mission to demarcate the southern border with Egypt, comb through the Negev desert, and cleanse it of any remaining Arabs during the summer of 1949, a year following the 1948 Palestine War between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The Israelis celebrate the war as their War of Independence, while the Palestinians mourn the same war as the Nakba, literally “cataclysm” or “catastrophe,” in which 700,000 of their people were forced into exile. On one of their patrols, the Israeli soldiers murder a camp of Arab Bedouin. They take a Palestinian teenager and her dog hostage, gang-rape her over the course of several days, kill the girl, and then bury her in the desert. In the narrative, the victim is hosed down with water from a tank and sterilized with petrol as if she were livestock and beaten unconscious when she resists the officer’s sexual advances. She is effectively dehumanized, reduced to an animal. This is a degradation that Shibli cleverly makes literal when the girl’s dog, which becomes an important symbol in the novel, barks and howls while she is unable to cry out because the officer has clamped his hand over her mouth. It is as if she has been so completely silenced that only her dog can articulate her suffering. The distant third person narration further dehumanizes the girl by omitting her sensations and thoughts. The first narrative is an impersonal account of the atrocity told through the lens of the Israeli captor and also one that elides the victim’s experience of events. The one-sidedness of this narration reflects one of the central themes of the novel, which is the trivialization of the Palestinian side of history, through which the Palestinian presence during a course of events is overwritten and treated as “minor.”
The second narrative, exactly twenty-five years later, adopts an intimate first-person perspective to revisit the atrocity and to attempt a reconstruction of the incident after it has been obscured through historical erasure and Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. The narrator is an unnamed young Palestinian woman in Ramallah. She reads about the rape and murder in the newspaper and becomes obsessed with the incident. For the narrator, the incident itself is nothing extraordinary because her city experiences killing, rape, and similar violence on an everyday basis. She has become so accustomed to such atrocities that when a nearby building is bombed, she is more concerned with the dust from the nearby bombing than the murder of the three young men who had barricaded themselves inside. She worries that the dust will distract her from her work: “That colleague had forgotten to open a window in one of the offices, and the glass shattered the moment the building was bombed. But the result of him opening the window in my office was equally unbearable, because right after the explosion, which shook the office a great deal, a thick cloud of dust burst in, some of which landed on my papers and even on my hand, which was holding a pen, so I had to stop working. I absolutely cannot stand dust, especially that kind, with its big grains that make a shuddersome sound when papers rub against each other, or when one marks on them with a pen.” The narrator describes such violence as another mundane inconvenience, with the same resigned tone she applies to her descriptions of the barking of a dog or the whipping of a tree by the wind. In this way, Shibli renders violence as something quotidian and extremely redundant, something that has been drained of its luridness. This repetition of events is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence, in which he wrote that because time was infinite and there were a finite number of events, such events would repeat themselves over the course of existence. Nietzsche (and Camus) urged one to adopt an attitude of affirmation toward the recurring events, but in this novel, the narrator’s attitude is one of resignation and suppressed outrage. For the narrator, the violence is no less horrific but an unalterable reality that continues to repeat itself, as if she were living in a recurring nightmare.
The narrator becomes absorbed with the incident not because of the nature of the crime but because of the detail that the rape and murder were committed exactly twenty-five years prior to the day she was born. She admits that the detail is “minor,” something that cannot be more than a coincidence, and something which “others cannot but belittle/dismiss.” She tries to forget about the incident itself, to assure herself that the date is trivial and insignificant, but the “minor detail” haunts her and compels her to investigate the truth regarding the atrocity, as if it were a fitful spirit inhabiting her house. She cannot shake the feeling that it “will stay with me forever, in spite of myself and how hard I try to forget it, the truth of it will work its fingers into me, never-endingly, given how fragile I am, as weak as the trees out there past the windowpane.” The past relentlessly haunts the present, even as the present tries to forget and erase it. The narrator uses the term “minor detail” with a sense of understatement and reservation, as if it were a term she has borrowed from the impassive politico-speak in which the incident was reported rather than something she actually means. The irony here is that the “minor detail” becomes very major, even essential to the narrator’s reconstruction of the incident. She observes elsewhere that a “minor detail” can become the defining detail when considering an artwork or a traumatic event: “There are some who consider this way of seeing, which is to say, focusing intently on the most minor details like dust on the desk or fly shit on a painting, as the only way to arrive at the truth and the definitive proof of its existence.” For the narrator, the minor detail of the incident’s date represents the personal as opposed to the public — that is, the facts of the rape and murder that have been reported in the newspaper. It is not only personal in the literal sense, in that the narrator shares her date of birth with the incident, but also in the metaphorical sense, in that it represents the victim’s story, which like in the first narrative, has been completely omitted. In this way, the narrator, by pursuing this “minor” detail, performs an act of resistance by reclaiming the personal from the public and historical truth from erasure.
One of the central elements of the novel is the superimposition of the first and second narratives. Shibli carefully overlays the two by firstly, repeating plot details in the second that were glimpsed in the first. For instance, the Palestinian victim’s dog, which barked and howled whenever she was violated by the soldiers, recurs in the second narrative when the woman is constantly woken by a dog’s incessant barking and howling during the middle of the night in her Ramallah home. The dog, which witnessed and voiced its owner’s suffering in the first narrative, reappears to haunt the narrator in the present, as if the dog testifies to its owner’s suffering for a second time. The second way by which Shibli superimposes the two narratives is by having their story arcs converge, even though they at first appear distinct from each other. Just as the Palestinian victim finds herself alone in the Negev desert, so the narrator of the second narrative, in pursuit of the truth regarding the incident, travels alone into the Negev desert and revisits the site of the atrocity. Just as the victim is doused in petrol before her hair is cut short, so the narrator spills petrol onto her hands and trousers when she is clumsy at a gas station. Just as the first narrative reflects the omission of the Palestinian victim’s story, so the second narrative observes the disappearance of Palestinian towns and the nonexistence of the victim’s story in the present. And most importantly, just as the first narrative concludes with the victim’s murder, so the second ends with another horrific act of violence. In this way, the second narrative becomes a ghostly afterimage of the first in what seems to be a perpetual cycle of violence. They are interweaved in such a way that the second is staged as if the first were reenacting itself in the present. In Freudian terms, the second is a “return of the repressed,” the revisiting by a trauma that has not been resolved. The manner in which the first narrative is underlaid beneath the second, as if it were a palimpsest, as if it were a town buried and then unearthed in the second, is one of the Shibli’s greatest achievements in the novel. Through her unique double narrative structure, she suggests that the marginalization of the Palestinian people persists and their lives and history remain just as tenuous as ever, threatened by violence and erasure.
Minor Detail itself is an act of subversion because it represents history told on Palestinian terms, through a Palestinian voice. Shibli, in her poetic, mournful essay “Out of Time,” writes that Palestinian literature was and remains subject to the approval of the Israeli Censorship Bureau. Palestinian literature was considered “unlawful, if not taboo, similar to pornography.” Shibli’s novel is revolutionary because it represents a reality that has been suppressed by political and historical forces. If the narrator of the second narrative fails in recovering the victim’s story of twenty-five years prior from historical erasure, at least she has succeeded in testifying to that erasure. In the same essay, Shibli writes that in Palestine, time “often stops moving. It suddenly enters into a coma, with which it becomes unable to count the time.” Her fine, harrowing novel bears witness to this comatose state by having the past reprise itself in the present. And perhaps it is when one realizes one has been living in a coma, one can finally awake into consciousness and start moving time forward again.
Darren Huang is a Full Stop Reviews Editor and writer based in Manhattan.