Voices of the Lost
(Yale University Press, 2021)
In the original Arabic, the prose of Hoda Barakat must glitter with sharply cut gems, carefully positioned, their corners drawing blood. The first among these Voices of the Lost, for instance, slips a nasty analogy into his pillow talk: “Insomnia offers you a little crack in my defences that you think you can widen.” Nor do such quick hits exhaust her repertoire. Throughout this same first chapter, the narrator rages against his mother. When he was at “eight or nine,” the woman packed him off, insisting Lebanon held nothing for “the cleverest brother.” Decades later, in what sounds like Paris, the man’s still seething, and at one point he detours into an arresting comparison. Recalling that some animal mothers eat their male offspring, he sees it as a caring gesture. In such cases the child returns to “the place of ultimate contentment”; it knows “the love that devours even corpses.”
An astonishing passage, part revulsion and part sweetness⎯but like the first I cited, just one tool from the author’s kit. The metaphor is all about the intimate, but Barakat also works up vivifying new expressions for larger issues, with historical wallop. Towards the novel’s end, one of the final narrators meditates grimly on his homeland⎯again Lebanon, the same as for all these men and women. He knows that the “apocalyptic images … on the news” aren’t the whole story, but he’s all too aware of the worse damage done when well-meaning outsiders try to take a hand.
Nothing ever comes of it, except for yet another drummed-up cause for people who have no cause. If any of them did decide to get to know that obscure world ‘close up,’ they would return to their family as a few random body parts in a little wooden chest⎯if they came back at all.
Skills like that, evident both in miniature and on a cathedral wall, have helped Barakat achieve the sort of stature still rare for a woman in the Arab world. First in Beirut and later in Paris, she’s been celebrated for her drama and scholarship as well as her novels. Voices of the Lost is her sixth, shortlisted for the Man Booker International. Fittingly, the translator is Marilyn Booth, who’s handled other award-winning Arab women. Booth proves sensitive with both nuances and broad strokes, and more importantly, savvy about the way the work flaunts convention.
The novel starts out epistolary, opening with six letters. Paperwork, old school, each develops a complete narrative, but each breaks off mid-sentence and none reach their intended recipient. Rather, the pages find their way into the hands of a stranger, a narrator of the opposite gender, who’s thus inspired to bare his or her own soul. Yet not one of these people provides a name or an address. All suffer displacement in some form, with allusions to Lebanon in their past. A few, though, refer to other Middle East trouble spots, and none clarify just where they’ve found refuge. Most appear to be in Paris, though there’s also vague mention of “Canada.” While they sketch in local color, the hardships of scratching a living, none unfold a map. Everyone’s an adult, with a number of sexual partners, but their lovers lack names as well.
This alone places the novel outside the norms, substituting a chain of coincidence for plot. Plots indeed emerge, in these openers, everything from amour fou to homicidal mania. The most gripping may be the third, the confession of a refugee Raskolnikov, and then his discarded text prompts one almost as hair-raising, featuring a sex worker and her kidnapped daughter. Yet while both dramas reach climax, like the other four, none quite get to denouement. They all break off, as I say, and then after the last of those letters, Voices of the Lost gets really strange.
A good three quarters of the way along comes Part Two: a series of short rejoinders to the preceding cries from the heart. Together they take the spectacle of disrupted households to a bigger arena, where the fans have all changed sides. Each of the later pieces argues against one of the earlier, ranging from merely contradictory to downright outraged. Barakat’s departure from everything previous doesn’t end there, either, since each slender new chapter is presented as monologue rather than text. At last we’re hearing actual voices: an abandoned lover, a neglected brother, and other collateral damage. More importantly, though none carry on for long, none come across as negligible or stupid. They suffer serious wounds, and when one woman claims a kinship to Job, she could be speaking for all Barakat’s characters. Those in Part Two may no longer work through correspondence, but they remain part of a greater call and response. The counterpoint winds up more moving than hearing just the one melody.
Significantly, too, the novel awards the final word to a postman. Another player from out of left field, the narrator of Part Three is left as nameless as everyone else, yet he embodies a stubborn hope. He’s hung on in his ruined country, also of course unspecified (rather, Barakat names the party most responsible for the destruction: Daesh), and he’s taken on the task of saving all its lost mail. The piles mount up, but he keeps them sorted and ready, in anticipation of better.
Ultimately, Voices of the Lost belongs with the most exemplary fiction of our contemporary diasporas, striving to match the new tragedy with a new form. A lesser-known case would be Khaled Khalifa, No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, a famous one Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer. Like them, Barakat is opening her little chest of body parts, and using them to construct something better than a monster.