Exile and Odyssey
By Donna Bailey Nurse
I have not had occasion to read Dimitri Nasrallah's first novel, Blackbodying, which received rave reviews and a McAuslan First Book Prize. But I did read an essay the Montreal writer published in this paper a couple of years back in defence of Caryl Churchill's play Seven Jewish Children.
One of his comments stayed with me. He spoke of "how a people's history complicates their personal lives." That statement quietly interrogates Canadian-style multiculturalism, our surface acceptance of ethnic difference with the caveat that collective histories remain behind.
Even Nasrallah's use of the term "people's" seems bold, for, despite Canada's preoccupation with group rights, we display a marked willingness to favour the ethnic individual over the ethnic group. Nasrallah's sentiments made me eager to read his new novel: Would it carry us beyond the well-meaning banalities that characterize our discussion of immigrants and refugees? For the most part, he does not disappoint.
The novel's title character is Niko Karam, born, like Nasrallah, during Lebanon's civil war. We meet him when he is six years old, living with his parents in their Beirut apartment. His mother, Elise, who writes for a daily paper, is several months pregnant. His father, Antoine, owns a camera shop.
As the story begins, however, a bomb has destroyed Antoine's store. Secretly, Niko is pleased to have his father home during the days. When the TV signal is clear, he and his father watch American cartoons. Niko has been desperately lonely. The school year has again been cancelled, and bombs and sniper fire make it dangerous to go out and play. He looks forward to a baby brother who will be a curiosity and a friend.
Niko's familiar world comes to a brutal end when his mother is fatally injured in a bombing. After her death, Antoine determines he will take Niko and abandon his imploding country. The ferry to Cyprus is crammed with Lebanese fleeing the war. Antoine and Niko travel from Jounieh to Cyprus, where they visit with Raymond, an old friend who has managed success abroad.
Over the next while, they sail to Antalya and then to Greece, from island to island. Antoine regales Niko with tales of the gods and ancient kings. But harsh reality is impossible to ignore. He seeks employment and schools. Visas and visitor permits restrict his time. He struggles to keep Niko clean and fed. No easy task, as few establishments deign to serve them. Everywhere, Arab refugees are met with suspicion and disdain.
"Antoine surmises that they have not escaped the war after all, that perhaps they may never outrun it. The problem of his country, this ever-complicated struggle to stay together in the face of adversity, has leached onto their skin and travelled with them. They cannot rid themselves of it. It stains them."
Finally, Antoine's sister-in-law, married and living in Montreal, offers Niko a temporary home. At the airport in Athens, father and son tearfully part ways.
Under the umbrella of exile and immigration, Nasrallah examines such existential concerns as alienation and despair. He considers fate versus the ability to control one's destiny; survival of the fittest, and the notion of luck. The maritime setting - Greece, Turkey and also North Africa - powerfully, and sometimes playfully, evokes Homer's Odyssey. Antoine himself eventually becomes a figure of myth. He is involved in a shipwreck. Once rescued, he slips into a coma, awakening, eventually, with no memory. He becomes famous in his community as the man without a past.
Nasrallah, who has the makings here of an excellent screenplay, can go a little Hollywood. But Antoine's amnesia provides more than melodrama; it must be paralleled with Niko's inability to let go of the past. Growing up in Montreal, Niko waits for some news of the father who has fallen off the face of the earth. Miserable and friendless, without academic ambition, his only excitement comes from shoplifting.
His aunt and uncle are equally ambivalent about the past and equally unhappy. The Lebanon they knew no longer exists, and many of their loved ones are dead. Yet this has not made them warm to one another or to the role of surrogate parents. Their relationship with Niko is a disaster.
Nasrallah possesses superb powers of description. With a few deft strokes, he delivers a character's essence and motivations. His idiosyncratically scarred landscapes shimmer in exotic hues. This novel kept fierce hold of my attention until the final pages when, strangely, out of the blue, it began to waver. We are treated to a couple of scrupulously correct soliloquies regarding the appropriate place of the past in the immigrant's life. Everyone is an individual, the characters say, obviously speaking Nasrallah's thoughts; one person's experience is not necessarily representative of the group.
But in fact, Nasrallah's startling achievement is to cause us to perceive the group differently, to remind us that every crowd of refugees consists of scores of people like Niko and Antoine.
This review appeared previously in the Globe and Mail. Dimitri Nasrallah has been longlisted for Canada Reads 2016.