[World Editions; 2024]

Tr. from the Arabic by Leri Price

Where the Wind Calls Home takes the shape of a wound—a bone-deep gash. The book is missing a layer of skin, a chunk of flesh. So many parts of a normal novel’s body are gone. From this central laceration, words seep out like vital fluid, a sign of healing as much as pain. The scents, sounds, and images of a gravely wounded Syrian fighter’s life steadily drip out of the simple story: a soldier slowly crawls to a nearby tree in order to die.

The book’s form resembles its main character, Ali, who is mangled. Ali is nineteen years old, the middle son of hard-bitten day laborers in a rural Syrian mountain village. He has a deep connection to nature—as a child, he was prone to wiling away his days among the trees, imagining he was riding the wind—which suffuses the air around him with a measure of transcendence, a serene indifference to the particulars of civilization. The omniscient narrator relates, in close third-person, that “as for the mountains, which bloodshed and war had passed over for thousands of years, they calmly reclined to the sea, confident that all this was nothing more than a temporary scuffle.” The scuffle is the Syrian Civil War.

The civil war makes it impossible for Ali—who at times seems a sort of holy fool, bearer of a soul oriented totally toward the spiritual—to forget that in life there’s no escape from that coarser realm of humans and the things they do to each other. Ali is lying on his back with his right heel missing and his body covered in blood. Memories of war return to him slowly and vaguely, an image of his military’s forces bombing his own brigade on a hilltop. Gradually a tree comes into view, “a huge tree, that seemed far away, yet not far away enough to be a figment of his imagination,” a tree “that was neither a dream nor a nightmare.” The tree looks exactly like the one that shades his village’s maqam, or shrine, and all who would congregate there. Ali would like to feel the embrace of that tree, which may represent the embrace of his entire cherished land, whose beauty both precedes and is bigger than the present slaughter. The tree beckons him and he crawls to it.

Not much more happens in Where the Wind Calls Home. The novel’s action is almost entirely psychic. The drama of recent Syrian history—the reign of the dictatorial Assad family, the brutal civil war begun in 2011—plays out in the struggle of one single consciousness trapped in its gears. The novel takes place over the course of a single day. We accompany Ali through the last motions of his life. We see him slowly and painfully crawling to the tree as he slips in and out of consciousness, becoming aware of his body’s condition and his physical surroundings and then losing touch with the physical realm all over again. Meanwhile—and this makes up the bulk of the text—“his life [comes] to him intermittently,” memories of his family and village and country in flames crashing down on him like shrapnel.

Yazbek, whose previous novel to be translated into English was a finalist for the National Book Award, manages to do seemingly contradictory work with her prose. Two plots—the internal and the external—jostle for space on the page. At the same time, Yazbek weaves one into the other seamlessly, sometimes in the same paragraph, even the same sentence. The novel opens with a single leaf landing on Ali’s eye, then Ali’s bewildered mind racing: “Was he still alive? Did he have a body? If so, where was it?” Then Ali transmogrifies into an eye—an all-seeing eye floating through space and time to oversee a funeral that may or may not be his own. The eye can hear his mother’s wails, smell “the dawn coming off the root tips” exposed by a freshly dug grave; it can see the pink worms that are just like the pink worms Ali used to line up in a row and set to racing as a child. All this happens in two pages.

At first, navigating this constant movement, the reader is as disoriented as Ali, swooning on the edge of death. The intimate third-person narration and a healthy dose of free indirect discourse put the reader inside Ali’s head and also put him in ours. When he passes out, a chapter ends. We read Ali reading his own dire situation, as confused at first as we are. “Was this his funeral?” he asks himself, right when we find ourselves wondering the same thing. 

As the novel progresses, and as the reader grows accustomed to largely unannounced leaps in place and time, the effect of this narrative zigzagging evolves from confusing to devastating. As Ali remembers his happy childhood in a tight-knit village surrounded by natural beauty and as the richness of his prewar life comes into view, the magnitude of his losses grows clearer. Yazbek’s technique shows just how thickly the intangible and invisible—nostalgia, ideology, desires, propaganda—congeal around any present moment in a conflict zone, where human history has risen to the surface. The novel’s one long scene is a palimpsest, each element experienced both for what it is and for what it resurrects. The tree becomes a portal into memories of Ali’s spiritual mentor in the village, a red-haired woman who’d lived through four regimes; a headache opens a direct route to the day when Syria’s first dictator died. The sensations of dying on the hilltop are interwoven with Ali’s sensory memories of when, as a child, a botched sacrifice led to a headless calf collapsing on top of him.

Of all the themes running through this book—the relationship of humans to nature, the pursuit of spiritual meaning, the transformation of the Syrian countryside, the desperate cruelty of all war, but especially of civil war—this double vision, the way the entanglement of past and present is so clear in a crisis, is the one that touched me most. No action in war is isolated, because nothing can remain innocent of its history. Every move of Ali’s body, every rustle of the breeze and whisper of the tree, ramifies through so many layers of the past. We come to realize that as trapped as Ali is by his physical wounds, he’s trapped by time, too—weighed down by the morass of all that has led him and his country to this point.

The ongoing Syrian Civil War is one of the defining horrors of this century. Its wreckage has reshaped huge swaths of the world beyond the Levant, from the United States to Europe to Iran. Through a combination of talent, dedication, success, and fortune, Samar Yazbek has emerged as one of the few Syrian writers of the war whose works are translated into English and published and distributed widely in the United States. Read in this language, in this country, Yazbek’s novel is transformed and forced to speak twice: once as a dense and incandescent work of art, and again as a testimony, before a mostly distant audience, to the fact that all war-torn homelands were once homes, all the dead once exuberantly alive. 

Sometimes I think of literature and war as two beasts locking horns, each trying to reshape the world in its image. War erases distinctions between individuals; literature exalts the particular. War fixes its hungry eyes on the body, while literature casts its gaze on the soul. War is a machine for more death, literature for more life. War, in this case, of course has a great competitive advantage over literature: it kills writers, kills readers, desiccates culture. It imposes fear and silence.

But literature can persist under all sorts of conditions. Where the Wind Calls Home reveals the key to this persistence. Books in general, and novels in particular, can stake a claim to a different realm, one where the constructions that give war meaning—friend and foe, good and evil—are destabilized. This novel cuts so deep, is concerned so intensely with the relationship between one broken soldier’s finite body and his deathless soul, that it seems only of passing interest, in the novel and in this review, that Ali was a fighter not for the rebels, whose success much of the world has been hoping for since 2011, but for the brutal Syrian Army. It’s a testament to Samar Yazbek’s acuity of vision, to her generosity of spirit, that this fact comes, in the end, to matter very little.

Daniel Yadin is a writer, translator, bookseller, and bartender in New York.

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