Until recently in the West, one of the most widely circulated artistic representations of everyday life in Lebanon was a German film entitled Circle of Deceit (Die Fälschung, 1981), set during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) and featuring Bruno Ganz—who went on to play Adolf Hitler in Downfall—in the role of a journalist on assignment in Beirut, a city which serves as a backdrop for the foreigners living in its midst, reflecting their tormented psyches. Today such flawed depictions of former colonies are being justly and quickly forgotten, as the broadcasting, distribution, and publishing industries update their business models to keep pace with the instant global communication that has become the norm. The public votes with its eyes and ears in a marketplace of attention, and business follows suit. Among the many newly available artworks from the Arab world, several exceptional works and artists stand out; one supreme example, judging from his two available English-language books, is Rabee Jaber, author of fifteen novels, editor of the weekly cultural supplement of the Pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayyat, and winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Jaber’s 2005 novel Confessions is now available in a translation by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.
After the kidnapping and murder of his son during the civil war, a Beiruti man joins the fighting as a vigilante, and while stopping traffic one day at the demarcation line that divides the city in two, he opens fire on a car and kills everyone in it except for a little boy who is the age his son would have been if he’d lived. The man wraps the child in a blanket, takes him home and raises him as his own, naming him Maroun after the son he has lost. Later, as a university student, Maroun learns the truth about himself from his brother on the eve of their father’s death; and later still, as an adult working for an engineering firm, he tells his life story to a writer named Rabee.
The dreamlike retrospection of Jaber’s digressive prose conveys his motifs—politics, war, identity, eroticism, romantic love, family ties, grief, sensuality, memory, imagination—by way of a narrator who complains that he can’t express himself. This technique is exemplified in the following sentence: “We fell in love, and my mind was running wild, making plans, and running wild some more when she told me (on the upper floor of a patisserie on Mono Street that’s no longer there—she was eating ice cream and I was eating cake) that she couldn’t see me anymore.” Maroun harbors no rage, and can’t empathize with his father; and yet he avoids self-pity, because he retrieves images instead of evoking them: he makes up by fortitude what he lacks in depth.
The author’s preoccupation with routes through a changing cityscape, together with his ritual naming of districts, neighborhoods, streets, buildings and businesses, indicates an urban mythographic project that recently led the New York Times to compare him to James Joyce, notwithstanding the latter’s Aristotelian particulars in Ulysses, and the former’s Augustinian inwardness in Confessions. The passivity and one-dimensionality of the main character of this novel, who doesn’t take part in a single reported-speech conversation in the entire text, invites the surmise that the story’s actual protagonist is the city of Beirut itself. Reading Maroun as a representative figure intended to allegorize the experience of the residents of the city of Beirut—and by extension, the Lebanese people—doesn’t supply the psychological realism that a mass market book-buying public looks for in a novel. And yet interpreting the character as a symbol allows for his interiority, which otherwise—unless he’s actually a ghost—resembles victimhood. Maroun’s understanding of Heraclitus, for example, when he reads the philosopher in college, is debilitating: “Doesn’t fate make a man’s character?” he asks, and forfeits the agency that the Greek fragment, often translated as “Character is fate,” might safeguard. In this sense, despite the unusual circumstances of his existence, and the symbolic status that they paradoxically confer upon him (he is everyone and no one at the same time), Maroun’s grasp of the narrative he’s creating from memory betrays a servile and unchanging view of his condition. One is left with the conjecture what would be abnormal in many another character is normal in Maroun because of the war trauma his country has endured.
In a March 2016 interview with Epicenter, translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid suggests that, for a translation to be successful, “the text…shouldn’t sound translated,” adding that “if it’s poetry, for example…it should sound like something that a good English or American poet would write. And the same thing in a novel.” With Confessions, alongside The Mehlis Report (2005, English translation, 2013) and Berytus: An Underground City (2005, English translation forthcoming 2016), Abu-Zeid has remade Rabee Jaber’s Beirut into a permanent part of Anglophone literature, and added him to our constellation of fiction writers: “You go to a far-off place when you write,” says the soul of Sanan’s kidnapped and murdered sister Josephine in The Mehlis Report, “a place only you have access to; and if what you write is good, a day comes when others enter that place as well. But you don’t think of them while you’re writing. You think of words.”