Swallow Books, £12.99, 202pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Sarmada, By Fadi Azzam, trans. Adam Talib
Places have moods, this novel reminds us. Sometimes Sarmada, a mountain village rising from the Hauran plain of southern Syria, is all "oblivion, dust and tedium;" at other times it's a shimmering delight, each rock, tree, spring, cliff and cave owning rich histories. Sarmada is also "a Sheherazade", a generator of tales.
Like the Arabian Nights, Sarmada contains stories within a frame story. The frame and trigger is a meeting with Azza Tawfiq, an expert in chaos theory at the Sorbonne who (following the Druze tenet of transmigration) believes she lived in Sarmada in a past life as a murdered girl called Hela Mansour. Bemused, the narrator returns from "chasing dreams in Paris and delusions in Dubai" to excavate the village's memories, at first on Azza's behalf.
Hela's crime was to fall in love with an itinerant Algerian. A double crime: "love is a disgrace", and this love, to a non-Druze stranger, is a "defection". The Mansour brothers purify their honour by butchering Hela, only to find their shame superseded by guilt and, in the youngest brother's case, by desire for Farida, an assertive beauty and the second of three women to dominate the novel. Farida marries a gambler who dies on the second night of the wedding festivities. Her next husband dies of an immediate heart attack, and her third is killed in the 1973 war with Israel. Farida redeems her ill-starred status by becoming the village's foremost herbalist. She drains the monstrous swelling of an old woman's breasts (the first in a series of Marquezian deformities) and concocts a crying cure for grief with the resulting milk. The entire village samples the brew, including the plants, which burst into sap and nectar tears. Farida is thrown back into disrepute by her seductions of teenage boys. One such liaison leads to the birth of Bulkhayr, who grows to become an ardent lover of Rimbaud.
If there's a growing shapelessness in the novel's last third, it really doesn't matter. Brimful of magic, Sarmada is a book to be swallowed in rapturous gulps. It's beautifully written and, save the rare plunge into cliché, beautifully translated by Adam Talib. The major theme – frustrated and unleashed libido – slides only once towards porn mode.
This is a very Syrian novel, illustrating sectarian co-existence and providing glimpses of the country's mystical and literary wonders. Political history is integrated smoothly into the narrative. Azzam's criticism of dictatorship is scathingly precise. There's a devastating portrait of a Baathist faux-intellectual: a child-hating headmaster who arranges to have a boy tortured. Sarmada is, indirectly, an early novel of the contemporary Arab revolutions. Liberty, Azzam hints, must break out as surely as smothered sexuality. "All it takes is one breeze to make dust the ruler of the place."
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