Book: War on the home front

Claudia Pugh-Thomas admires a report from the soul's battlefield
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The Independent Culture
Unreal City

by Tony Hanania

Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99, 272pp

AS ONE day passes, from morning to nightfall, the troubled memories of Tony Hanania's anonymous protagonist in his second novel transport the reader from London to war-torn Lebanon. The complex history of 10 years is unfurled with subtlety to reveal the demise of both the narrator and his homeland. Born to a leading feudal family of Sidon, educated in England, his mother dead, his father absent, the young boy spends his summers shunning his family's company for that of local villagers. But with the civil war, Lebanon is bleached of its former glory.

Hanania's descriptions of war are intimate, yet unsentimental. The words move the eye across scenes of deprivation and despair, suddenly focusing on one detail: children posing as corpses for foreign cameras chary of the front line; "whole jars of ears like snails in oil," the trophies of war. Against this backdrop, the narrator searches for Layla, his lover from the refugee camp.

A diet of opium and hashmay oil dulls all senses, as he sits in the wreckage of his father's house, a microcosm of the desecrated country. The feelings of loss, both of self and homeland, are profound. In this theatre of horror, the martyr-plays familiar from his childhood (performed in commemoration of the Battle of Kerbala, central to Shi'ite theology) are played for real. The "great sleeping beast" of the past is awoken with the formation of the Islamist Hizbollah. This brotherhood of martyrs offers the narrator redemption, of his own sins and his forefathers'. Subordination of self to a religious ideal suits a soul desensitised by war.

The twists of the plot are intensified by Hanania's self-conscious, finely- wrought prose. Each stage of the narrator's downward spiral is told in unrelenting detail. The war over, the "drip-feed" of an allowance spent, he works at Excelsior Cars in London. As his mind yields to the hallucinations caused by opium and hunger, nightfall approaches. And this absorbing tale concludes with the ultimate act of loyalty as he drives a car packed with explosives to the home of "the sleekest pig in the sty", an un-named writer and enemy of Islam, whose history has more in common with his assassin than either would like to believe.