Books: A lifetime vanishes in the rubble

Unreal City by Tony Hanania Bloomsbury pounds 15.99

T his is a story told by a narrator without a name, about a group of friends and relatives that are no longer alive, set in a city so successfully ravaged by war that it barely exists beneath the weight of its horrific transformation.

Our story-teller is a heroin addict holed up in a London squat awaiting his next fix. In real time, the novel lasts a bleak day's length; in fictional terms it spans the whole bloody history of the Lebanese civil war.

As the day passes and the drugs fail to arrive, recollections of a childhood spent roaming olive groves and lemon orchards become increasingly corrupted by the escalation of the war.

By the end of the novel, the nightmare is complete. Beirut has become "a landscape without memory", whose besieged population trap "rats and wild cats in cages baited with the flesh of the dead". The narrator's remembered search for "the faces war and time had stolen" is reduced to a futile scrabble through the wreckage of his past.

As much autobiography as invention, as much history as fiction, Unreal City is a novel by default. Of course writers always draw on their own lives when fabricating their stories, but in Hanania's case the relationship between creation and personal experience is more complex and revealing than most.

Born in Beirut and educated in England, his life mirrors that of his narrator. Toby, the main character in his first novel, Homesick, which deals with the same subject, is just one letter-change away from the author's first name: Tony. That gives us a possible interpretation of Unreal City: three parts fact to one part fiction. Perhaps though, the book is best described as an epic prose poem. The writer borrows his title and philosophical theme from Eliot's The Wasteland, who in turn uses Baudelaire's dream and ghost-populated urban visions to amplify his poem's historical context.

Hanania is doing the same thing. Like Eliot, he sees the history of fiction as symbolic of the fiction of history. The ghosts that walk the streets of 19th century France and flow over London Bridge populate the ruins of Beirut, rendering the past irrelevant and only the present real.

Thankfully, Hanania is prudent with the currency of his literary inheritance. It is a philosophical novel, but much more than that, it is a brilliantly honest and personal rhapsody and memorial to a city and a people much missed.

He defines this struggle between the real and the unreal by framing the narrative with the timetable of a drug addict's need. This is the central sadness of the book. The personal tragedy of our narrator's war is reflected in his desperate longing for what is gone.

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