If Rima, the narrator of Samar Yazbek’s Planet of Clay, could have her way, she would not be writing her story—she would be drawing it. “Before,” she writes, referring to her life in Syria prior to its ongoing civil war, “I used to believe that drawing was more capable of expression than words.” But Rima has been relegated to an underground cellar that is her de facto trap and perhaps her salvation, a cellar that is by chance supplied with writing paper and just one blue ink pen. She has neither the luxury of choosing her medium, nor the privilege of knowing if she will ever enjoy the attentions of a reader. Still, “there are many stories you will hear,” Rima assures her improbable, imagined reader. “If I live.” Yazbek is a storyteller of many genres, so it seems only natural that this novel should—as it closely hews to horrors as seen and understood by one set of eyes, one mind—be concerned with the earthiest of literary questions: how, really, should one go about passing on that fickle thing, a story?
Yazbek worked as a journalist and script writer for Syrian television until 2011, when she joined the protests against the Assad dictatorship in the wake of the Arab Spring. After conflicts intensified, leading Syria into a catastrophic civil war, she was forced into exile. In the last decade, she has concerned herself with telling the stories of the conflict that led her to flee her home country. Her first two books about the war were works of memoir and reportage—A Woman in The Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution; and The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria—for which she won the PEN/Pinter International Writer of Courage Award and the French Best Foreign Book Award. Another nonfiction work, 19 Women: Tales of Resilience from Syria, came out in 2018, but has not yet been translated into English.
“What is happening in Syria,” Yazbek said in a 2015 interview, “is like being trapped down a deep, dark tunnel where you can see no way out.” In Planet of Clay, Yazbek makes the tunnel Rima’s cellar. Before her imprisonment, she is young but on the way to womanhood, silent except when reciting the Quran, and given to ambulatory excess—to keep her from wandering off, because she is believed to be mentally ill, her mother ties one of Rima’s wrists to her own with a cord. Rima offers a double-edged perspective: she is in the midst of events but also, at first, unaware of the world shifting, shaking, shattering just out of sight.
Rima chooses to begin her compelling if unevenly told tale just when her life of a bookish, oblivious teenager turns hellish: “Life seemed to be snapping at our heels,” she writes. One innocuous day, on the way to visit a librarian who long nourished her imagination with books—particularly Alice in Wonderland and The Little Prince, from which this book gets its title—Syria’s war finds her. At one of the checkpoints that dot Damascus, a scuffle ensues, Rima’s mother is killed (“my mother disappeared”), and Rima, shot in the shoulder and imprisoned in a so-called hospital, is witness to scenes and figures hued with Kafkaesque tones. Yazbek has expressed admiration for the Czech writer, but while Kafka renders his horrors as surrealistic, individualized tortures, Yazbek’s are experienced en masse, and grounded in the real recent past. Part of the point is that for all her idiosyncrasies, Rima’s fate, though it might be called random, is not idiosyncratic.
And the novel’s hallucinogenic horrors stem from a real source. The most affecting pages strikingly describe the aftermath of a sarin gas attack that nearly costs Rima her life. It is a scene that might be nominally familiar to anyone reading newspapers around 2013, rendered with unusual creative intensity:
There was a room soaked in water and we were swimming in it like paintings, and there were souls rising to heaven, children and women and men, more children and women than men. I was able to tell the souls apart from each other.
One of the book’s central questions is how to write out something you’ve experienced—imagine it out so that others may understand it, feel it, even live it. “I hear the roar of the plane,” Rima comments, “but that can’t be seen on the page.” Meanwhile, description is inadequate, too: “Is there a phrase that can describe the color that the chemical bombs left behind them?” At one point in Rima’s narration, which moves between telling the tale of her eventual entrapment in her cellar and her more associative ruminations, she speaks of an ambition she once had “to write and illustrate a long novel,” stating that “the right moment for turning these words into drawings is coming.”
Since Rima speaks to the difficulty of understanding “bare words without turning them into pictures,” one wonders what these illustrations might look like. When Rima does try to draw through her words, it leads to some of the book’s more strained writing, here about Rima’s infatuation for the man who saved her life during the sarin attack:
I am writing about Hassan for you, and I am observing the flies around me, coming out of the fish in my head. . . . Imagine me watching the flies all around me, and thinking there is a fish jumping between my ribs, and suddenly a fish shape wearing a rabbit skin leaps out from my chest and comes to rest! Drawing is better than words. If I had my paints, I could make you understand me much more clearly.
That this passage ends on a note of defeat evinces one of the risks of trying to turn thought and feeling into expression, but certainly our narrator knows that the greatest danger to storytelling, beyond not being understood, is that of not being believed: “Don’t think that what you are reading is a novel. What I’m writing is the truth.” This is curious, though not necessarily contradictory, in a sometimes discursive novel obsessed with the imaginary. But if Rima were real, if what we were holding in our hands is the compilation of all her scattered pages found and preserved, then we, the readers, might be nothing short of the final act of her attempted sorcery, the kind of figures that Rima’s highly active imagination would have committed to the page if only she had lived in a different world, on a different planet. Samar Yazbek has written a novel that, while sometimes frustrating or overwrought, nonetheless manages to speak to the urgency of telling and listening to the most vulnerable of stories—stories by people who in other circumstances might have had more than one story to tell.
© 2021 by Ben Goldman. All rights reserved.