With her youthful publication of the seminal novel, “Sitt Marie Rose,” the Lebanese-American writer and artist, Etel Adnan, set some very high aesthetic standards for her work. Now, her new collection of stories attests to her enduring power to defy boundaries and to engage her readers. Her title story, “Master of the Eclipse,” pays tribute to the deceased modern Iraqi Kurdish poet, Buland al-Haidari.
In his poem, “Mailman,” Buland wrote that “…mourning connects one festival with the next” and Adnan’s opening piece remembers her friend’s stories and poetry from an Italian arts festival held during the first Gulf War. A memory story, the narrative fluctuates between the distant and the recent past, between Buland’s and Adnan’s memories as the dexterous story flows into literary criticism and biography.
Buland’s self-described shame over his love of Saddam, and Saddam’s magnetic and manipulative support of Iraqi poetry festivals, quietly reveals the complicity of artists armed only with ideals. When an obnoxious American critic shows up to ask Adnan about the angels in Buland’s poetry, she attempts to elucidate the mystery and once again illustrates the binding concerns of Arab and Western poets. In the story, “The Power of Death,” about a Syrian man who remains haunted by his desertion of his young Swedish lover after her death, Adnan’s edifying tale uncovers the damage of the walking away from the gift of cross-cultural love. In these two stories, she also lays bare the role of the artist as the narrator and assumes the posture of empathetic and informed listener while acting as the go-between for the reader and Adnan’s memory of another.
Adnan returns to the problematic media, the war in Beirut and the subsequent framing of perception in the short story “The American Malady,” which shocks the reader in the tradition of Guy de Maupassant. Gender and gay critics will applaud the quietly sensitive “First Passion,” which gently recaptures an innocent love experienced before one has the vocabulary for it. Always an experimenter, Adnan’s second part of this collection contains four concise short stories set in the Arab world; each can be read either as a realistic glimpse into the underbelly or a symbolic exploration of real political problems. These 12 diverse stories should appeal to both the erudite reader and the one who simply wants the pleasure of a good story.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 61