This is the second installment in WWB’s new series Close-Up: An Experiment in Reviewing Translation, in which Lily Meyer and Mona Kareem review translated books with a focus on the translation itself. Read more about the series in this interview with Meyer and Kareem, or have a look at the first installment in the series, Meyer’s review of Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero.
When discussing her latest novel, Minor Detail, Palestinian author Adania Shibli can’t hide her excitement at the mention of language—her eyes widen and lighten up, as does her smile—a language in pursuit of which she spent at least a decade of her life. That’s how long it has taken to complete this short novel, her third work of fiction. During her absence, Shibli was working on growing her theoretical and research approaches to support her grand quest for a language of life under occupation. Minor Detail has been tagged, by reviewers and her publisher, as a “war novel” or classified under “Israeli-Arab conflict,” yet it takes only a few pages for the reader to realize how stereotypically lazy such labels are. If anything, Shibli makes it clear, with every line of her laborious novel, how war and conflict occur on the level of narrative, history, and the individual psyche.
The novel begins in the summer of 1949 in the Negev desert. Narrated in a distant third person, the first part of the novel follows Israeli soldiers as they set out on a mission to clear the area of roaming Arabs to make room for a new settlement. In one attack, they murder dozens of Bedouins and their animals, and capture a teenage girl, who then becomes the center of the story. Although her destiny might be predictable in context, the unfolding of her tragic story is where Shibli throws in all her weight, producing a piece of political fiction that stands out in contemporary Arabic literature.
The power of Shibli’s craft lies in the way she replaces voice with language, bypassing the search for the subaltern’s voice. Fiction writers tend to get lost in this pursuit; to “speak for” the victim, to resurrect her, to narrate from the point of view of the marginalized. Shibli makes no attempt to turn the victim into a hero, to suspiciously grant her a generous space. She is instead interested in amplifying the ease and silence surrounding the crime by playing on the distant voice, unnamed characters, and an hour-by-hour account.
He went on spraying her, arching his body to avoid the water flying in every direction, and circled around her, aiming the water first at her stomach, then her head, her back, her legs, and her feet, where grains of sand stuck to her skin, then at her torso again. And after he had soaked her completely, when every part of her was drenched, he covered the nozzle with his thumb, then turned to the crowd of soldiers circled around him and told the first one his gaze fell on to bring him a bar of soap immediately. The soldiers glanced at each other, and at the girl curled into a ball on the sand, shivering, until the soap arrived, and it slid from the soldier’s palm, to his palm, to the sand at her feet.
The work gives focus to the ways that language and space can interplay to strip everything naked. For example, in the first half, Shibli borrows an almost journalistic voice to follow an Israeli soldier whose enemies are both the native Bedouins and their ecology. We see him struggle to keep his body alive and clean, complaining of the heat and dust. The plot does not reveal itself right away, but the reader can already infer, from the soldier’s repetitive movements between tent and car, that something about his presence is invasive.
He had not slept for long, at least not enough for the shadows to recede and expose more sand. He turned and went back inside, then began circling the room, combing the walls and corners and ceiling with his eyes. He caught the movement of three delicate spiders, which he crushed at once with his hand.
In the first half of the book, Elisabeth Jaquette experiments with a number of approaches to Shibli’s careful language and prose. First, you read the long sentences divided by commas—a structure that is logical in Arabic but strange in English, since in Arabic a full stop signals a complete thought. Punctuation is used in the first pages to establish the setting, with commas and abrupt sentences capturing the remote place and its rigid protagonist, whose inner thoughts we never hear. As the novel becomes more focused on the soldier, the syntax changes to condensed sentences, mostly in the simple past tense, so as to stay faithful to the novel’s distancing between reader and event. It marks the place of the past, of official history and how it presents itself—cold-blooded and self-assured.
Minor Detail is rather a novel of minor details, an accumulation of details that store the trauma of those whose screams hang in the air of the past. Shibli startles you with her meticulous weaving of certain elements, such as an obsession for cleanliness, the scents of sweat and gas, the cries of howling dogs. The novel finds a way to disturb you by having these same elements reappear as experienced by different characters. In doing so, it creates a labyrinth in which each character echoes another, magnifying small acts and holding back from grand ones, shifting between history and its margins. By the end of the novel, one wonders which of the two parts of the novel is a margin to the other. It also feels as if the present moment, whose events occupy the second half of the book, is but a backdrop for the past.
This second section begins with a winding first-person paragraph as the story takes a meta turn: the focus is suddenly on an unnamed novelist who finds out about the girl’s murder from a newspaper article and decides to investigate it. Unlike the neutral register employed in the first part, the inflected tonality of the narrative voice in this half draws attention to itself, as it seems affected by the character’s anxiety in her search for archival material. In contrast with the officer’s invasive presence in the vast expanses of the Negev, the writer’s trip out of the West Bank makes you feel entrapped and breathless, surrounded by checkpoints, walls, and nameless streets.
Jaquette’s translation succeeds at bringing forward this anxiety, sometimes intentionally repeating certain words to reflect the character’s fixation on the howling dog, the chewing-gum girl, or the scents of gas and sweat. Perhaps the main challenge of translating Shibli’s text is her persistent use of an obscure diction so as to keep the reader sober throughout her unsettling prose. It produces an effect of detachment in the reader, a necessary distancing. This is best noticed in the rape scene, foreshadowed at length when the soldier washes the girl’s body with a water hose as she stands next to the dog, then soaks her with gas to disinfect her. The actual rape scene then unfolds at an abrupt pace, mostly fixating on their scents, letting the reader imagine such a violent event. Shibli’s philosophy stands for doing more by saying less.
The author does not miss the opportunity, in the two-day trip that her protagonist takes, to “unmute,” as it were, the history of the place. The second half dares to imagine a small return of the displaced Palestinian, represented by the novelist, who knows the land by heart, or via collective memory. Though she is not allowed in zones that are designated for Israelis only, she wanders around freely and even drives into a military base. Her prohibited presence offers a liberating, almost triumphant, effect. Her character already knows what the trip will yield, yet her thought process becomes a kind of typography of the oppressed psyche, rarely speaking out loud, preoccupied with her questions and doubts, terrified of the architecture, of others, of tomorrow. This “typography” takes form and shifts before the eyes of the reader. We notice only a few dialogues in the novel, as characters remain consumed by the weight of their own presence in this contested space. During the search for archival material, we come to realize that a true story is never found in history but rather in the language where it moves and settles.