Eight years ago, when the Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli was still living in Ramallah and hadn’t yet moved to London, she told the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif that life under occupation, even with an Israeli passport, pushes a writer to retreat into “a kind of autism.
Reality now is too frightening, impossible to grasp,” she said. “You could say that fiction becomes a kind of perversion.”Everything about the occupation “affects my writing,” she explained. “I can’t work for very long. It’s as though concentration becomes claustrophobic. The situation controls you. It affects you like a fever.”
Perhaps it makes sense, then, that so many of the characters in Shibli’s fiction – particularly in her second novel, “We Are All Equally Far From Love,” translated by Paul Starkey and published this month by Clockroot Books – are so often fevered and perverse, driven not to deviancy but to bottomless and self-destructive hatred.
What remains fiendishly difficult to determine, however, is the extent to which any of her stories can be read as allegories without being unjust to the delicacy and dexterity of her style.
Do Shibli’s portrayals of bodies in pain – whether a man refusing food in a hospital is diseased or a woman walking into a cafe is despised – represent the disintegration of Palestine or the degradation of Palestinian society? Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. Whatever the case, Shibli’s fiction reads like a collection of riddles that constantly draw you in and cast you out as soon as you think you’ve solved them.
Shibli, who is 37 and writes in Arabic, published her first novel in 2002, and her second in 2004. Both won awards from the A. M. Qattan Foundation. Translations into French and Italian followed, with English catching up more recently (Shibli’s debut “Touch” was published by Clockroot two years ago).
In addition to long-form fiction, Shibli writes film criticism, thorny essays on contemporary art and has published countless short stories of heartbreaking (and deceptive) simplicity. In “Out of Time,” for example, a tiny watch on the narrator’s wrist becomes as consequential as a full-blown character.
To tell the story of the watch, which keeps perfect time outside of Palestine but malfunctions miserably inside, Shibli tells another story about one of the only works of Arabic literature she read in primary school, because it hadn’t been banned by the Israeli Censorship Bureau.
In Samira Azzam’s 1963 short story “The Time and Man,” a young man sets his alarm clock early to catch a train for his first day of work. Just as the alarm goes off, an old man knocks on his door and then disappears. The old man’s son, who worked for the same company, had been killed by the train. Late for work one day, he ran for it, tripped and was crushed under its weight. From then on, the old man woke all the employees to keep them from suffering the same fate.
For the censors, the story was apparently safe. For Shibli, it shaped her political consciousness in a manner the Israelis must have never imagined. “Were there one day Palestinian employees who commuted to work by train? Was there a train station? Was there a train honking? Was there one day a normal life in Palestine? And where is it now and why has it gone?”
To read (and reread) Shibli’s fiction as possible answers to such incisive questions opens up new dimensions in her work, alongside the temptations of allegorical interpretation.
While “Touch” was barely a novel at all – 75 pages that purred like a prose poem, tracing the experiences of a young girl through fever and grief with barely a proper noun in the entire text – “We Are All Equally Far From Love” is fuller and slightly more conventional.
Divided into six vignettes or “measures” (of poetry, of music), the novel is bound by two frame-setting sections, “The Beginning” and “The End.” The first section sets the bar almost impossibly high with nine nearly perfect pages about a woman who writes a letter to a man at the behest of her boss.
The man doesn’t talk to anyone. She writes him to ask a perfunctory question, the subject of which we never know. He responds, and she falls in love. She also doesn’t completely understand his answer to the question, so she writes him another letter, then another and another still. Their epistolary correspondence fills out until suddenly he sends a terse missive putting an end to their words-only affair.
From here, Shibli moves into “The First Measure,” about a surly teenager named Afaf who is pulled out of school and put to work in a post office, where she intercepts letters for her father, a collaborator. The job bores Afaf to tears until six love letters arrive, having never reached their destination.
Curiously, according to the translator’s note at the back of the book, the original version of the novel in Arabic included the six letters, which have been deleted from the English edition at the author’s request. What did they say, those letters? Their omission adds mystery to Shibli’s book, which is poised, at the end of “The First Measure,” to enter a rich fictional world.
Instead, the stories that follow are lesser and for the most part unrelated. All of them illuminate pain and sorrow and the loss of love hardening into hatred, but none of them keep up the momentum of the book’s promising first pages.
Shibli’s stories are notably more sparse and less convincing when her protagonist is a man. The fourth and fifth measures mirror one another in he-said, she-said style, but the latter is far more substantial as the story of a woman driven to the brink of madness by a relentless (and morally repugnant) former lover.
In “The Ending,” Shibli confesses she tried on masculine and feminine guises “to give an element of fiction to what is actually real, and that, in truth, this narrator is me.” If we doubt her, it is due to the strength of the strange and radically restricted universe she created. If we are disappointed, it is because those letters stirred more in our imagination than she ultimately delivers.
Adania Shibli’s “We Are All Equally Far From Love,” translated by Paul Starkey, is published by Clockroot Books, an imprint of Interlink. For more information, please visit www.clockrootbooks.com.