Thursday, June 15, 2017

When you can't review impartially | Maryam: Keeper of Stories by Alawiya Sobh

This review is one of the hardest I've had to write in a very long time. It's a review tinged with disappointment, discomfort, and uncertainty. I spent a long time wondering whether I should even write a review of Alawiya Sobh's Maryam: Keeper of Stories (translated by Nirvana Tanoukhi). I wondered if I could write an impartial review.

I can't write an impartial review, perhaps, so I will write an emotional one.

I was fine with Maryam for the first 100 pages. By which I mean I was engaged with these mostly tragic-sometimes-sweet fragments about the lives of mostly-Muslim Lebanese women. Maryam is a book comprised of pieces of stories, told ramblingly and often vaguely. The stories seem to overlap, with characters almost interchangeable. It's a book about women, often delving into the rougher sides of things too. Women are explicitly raped (not "hurt" by men; the text is blunt in this truth), women give birth, women befriend women, women fall in love, women are hurt, and so on. It's bleak, but there's a power to it, I suppose.

Except... something happened around 100 pages into the book. Specifically, an anecdote entered the narrative for no discernible reason. A deeply antisemitic, what-the-f***, unnecessary story.

This page-long anecdote is about the "grandfather", who goes to America to find his fortune. While there, the greedy Jew that he works with cheats the business's owner. The owner asks the grandfather to kill the Jew, which the grandfather does by... throwing "the Jew" into the oven. The grandfather is rewarded with gold, because now that the cheating Jew is gone, the bakery will make much more money. An alternative version to this story exists as well, in which it is actually the bakery owner who is Jewish and the American coworker who is burned. But this version is told in a paragraph as the alternative, rather than the page and a half devoted to the version that ends with the greedy Jew being burned in the oven.

I literally had to stop reading at this point. Sitting out on the balcony with my feet soaking up the sun, hands shaking, mouth open, utterly aghast, I set the book aside. I couldn't keep reading for several more hours. I wondered if I was being overly sensitive. I wondered if I was being unfair. I wondered if it was totally unintentional. Perhaps the Holocaust imagery was a coincidence? Perhaps the linkage between "Jew" and "money thieving" was random? Perhaps I was imaging things...

I couldn't read the book in the same way after that.

I started noticing the way Christian characters hardly existed in Sobh's Lebanon. Despite the fact that almost half of the country is Christian or Druze, the novel doesn't seem to see them the same way it sees its Muslim characters, even if it occasionally references the sectarian differences in the country that fuel so many of its conflicts. I started noticing that the narrative frequently references atrocities from Lebanon's wars with Israel (justifiably enough, though it ignores the triggers that led to these wars), but does not even mention Syrian interference in the country's civil war. The book started to feel like a smokescreen, telling one important story perhaps about the struggles of some Muslim women growing up during wars and atrocities and misogyny, but almost deliberately ignoring anything else around it.

Of course, this reading is heavily biased. I'm not going to pretend it isn't. The above feelings were always framed by that one moment, around page 100, with the Jewish worker being burned in the oven. Every time I tried to set it aside, I found myself coming back to it. Why would the narrative include it? What possible purpose did it serve? It had nothing to do with any of our main characters, provided little emotional depth, and served no purpose to the plot. Why was it there? Why was it translated so uncritically? Why should I read a book that has such a blatantly antisemitic reference and not be upset by it? Why shouldn't it color how I read the rest of the book?

I don't have any good answers to these questions.

Maryam has an interesting concept at its core. I loved the idea of telling women's stories in this muddled way. I loved that the focus really was on the struggles many women face, simply for being born female. The writing is dreamy and lovely, befitting a story that encompasses so large a time span with such a vaguely distant style. On a technical level, I can see that Maryam has a lot going for it. But does that excuse the rest? Does that excuse the dropped stories or aimless frame story? Does it excuse the smokescreen and evasion? Does it excuse a totally unnecessary antisemitic scene that is inexplicable and inexcusable and yet... included?

I was ultimately left disappointed and upset by Maryam. Triggered by personal experiences? Sure. Yes. Antisemitism is likely to hurt me more than others, fine. It meant that I couldn't read the story the way that I had wanted to. It meant that I had to reframe the entire story based on identity politics of the ugliest sort. It meant that I had to question whether lovely prose made up for ugly content. It meant I had to challenge my own definitions of ugliness, wondering if perhaps I could set aside my own emotions for the sake of other important aspects. I guess in the end I just couldn't, and I am left with a bitter taste in my mouth. Perhaps other readers will be able to look past what I could not; I remain disappointed, uncomfortable, and uncertain. What a shame.

2 comments:

  1. Ahhh...it's so upsetting to have to think about things like that. I think you did a good job of putting your feelings about the novel out there openly. As someone with similar biases, I probably would have felt the same way, but it's a shame to have that in the midst of an otherwise illuminating read.

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    1. I feel like a bad reader for not liking it! The few other reviews out there are pretty much all positive, and here I am focusing on this one thing... but I just couldn't move on. I guess criticism just isn't enough sometimes. Emotion almost always comes out stronger.

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