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The Palestinian Novella Making Me Rethink Length
(105 perfectly harrowing pages)
I have length issues: Every one of my novels so far has been longer than the last, which is not something the publishing world loves. (More on that below.)
A novella is a hard sell (what was the last novella you read?) and yet once in a while there’s a book that absolutely needs to be around 100 pages. No, there’s no way it could be trimmed to a short story, and no, it’s not begging to be a 300-page novel.
I’ve been reading my way around the world in translation, and book #9—the second Arabic book recommended to me by the author Rabih Alameddine—is the Palestinian novella Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated into English by Elisabeth Jaquette.
The premise: The first half is from the third-person point of view of a fairly sociopathic Israeli soldier in 1949, culminating in the murder of a Bedouin girl. The second half is in the first person, from a Palestinian woman who discovers that this murder happened 25 years to the day before she was born—the first of several fateful “minor details,” and the one that launches her on a hopeless investigation into the death.
Here’s what J.M. Coetzee said about it:
Adania Shibli takes a gamble in entrusting our access to the key event in her novel – the rape and murder of a young Bedouin woman – to two profoundly self-absorbed narrators – an Israeli psychopath and a Palestinian amateur sleuth high on the autism scale – but her method of indirection justifies itself fully as the book reaches its heart-stopping conclusion.
If he’s right about the second narrator being on the spectrum, I missed it completely… but the rest tracks for me.
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It’s quite a writerly investigation that the narrator embarks on, which is to say, the kind of research I often find myself doing as a writer: Maybe if I go to this place and kind of look around, I’ll figure something out. Maybe if I talk to this random guy at this random museum, he’ll tell me something I don’t already know. And now maybe I should walk around more.
The investigation would feel tedious if it didn’t also feel ominous. We get every detail of the narrator’s trip into Jaffa (a place she has to use a borrowed Israeli ID to enter), and it’s a level of detail that feels like a Hitchcock closeup on someone getting home and opening the kitchen door (closeup of the hand on the knob), and… we know something huge is going to happen. Shibli waits until the book’s last sentences for everything to come together, and because our second narrator only gets 52 pages, she’s only barely pressing the limits of our patience before we get the payoff.
Which brings me to the length. In a longer novel, she’d be practically required to have more happen, to put in more ups and downs, subplots, scenes. (You can almost hear the helpful members of the creative writing workshop: “But I want to know more about the girl who sells her the gum. Could she have her own chapter?”) But the economy here—not only of the whole, but of the 50-some pages allotted to each half—negates such demands.
My educational rewards on this translation journey have been about both style and substance. This book illustrates, better than any news story, the not only dangerous but also fundamentally Kafkaesque nature of modern Palestinian existence. Consider the following, from our second-half narrator:
The site of the incident, and the museums and archives documenting it, are located outside Area C, according to the military’s division of the country, and not only that, but they’re quite far away, close to the border with Egypt, while the longest trip I can embark on with my green identity card, which shows I’m from Area A, is from my house to my new job. Legally, though, anyone from Area A can go to Area B, if there aren’t exceptional political or military circumstances that prevent one from doing so. But nowadays, such exceptional circumstances are in fact the norm, and many people from Area A don’t even consider going to Area B. In recent years, I haven’t even gone as far as Qalandiya checkpoint, which separates Area A from Area B, so how can I even think of going to a place so far that it’s almost Area D?
This is the stuff (the danger-plus-tedium) we don’t get on the news. It also strikes me that it could have come straight out of The Hunger Games.
I love this quote regarding translation, from her Bomb Magazine interview:
I know Arabic, English, Hebrew, French, Korean, and German. I speak some better than the others, and sometimes one is weakened or strengthened by another. But yes, I only write fiction in Arabic because this language is a witch—an amazing, funny, crazy, generous, and forgiving witch. It has allowed me everything. It is the space of the most intimate freedom I have ever experienced in my life. The translation process was challenging. The text came with an added burden for the translator because the language had been formulated by a specific experience—in this case, the ways it was violated by colonization and oppression. In Arabic, this linguistic experience needed a lot of space and precision—attention to what is written and what is intentionally not written.
This Book Sounds Too Heavy…
But it’s only 105 pages! That’s the other great thing about writing short; we can tolerate darker stuff in shorter bursts.
Wait, Why Are Long Novels a Problem?
They aren’t, per se. Plenty of people love a long novel, BUT… they get more expensive to produce and ship, which means the cover price goes up, which means fewer are sold in hardcover, which doesn’t bode well for the novel overall. It also means fewer translation rights sell, and/or they sell for less, because the foreign publisher has to pay a translator for more time. And then there are the book clubs that have 300-page rules (as in, no books over 300 pages allowed), or the scores of people eager to take to Goodreads with “This book was fine, but it could have been shorter,” as if this never occurred to either the author or the editor.
So What’s Next?
Book #10 is The Stone of Laughter, a Lebanese novel by Hoda Barakat.
Yes, we need to have a talk with this cover designer. But I’m excited for what’s inside. From the official description:
The Stone of Laughter is a virile novel which brings forth the contradictory history of a city under fire through the life and dilemmas of a gay man. It is a bold and radical novel, full of black humor and cynical observations about life in war-torn Beirut. Written sensitively, and without a trace of sentimentality or political propaganda, The Stone of Laughter shook the Arab readers' preconceptions about women's writing and questioned the necessity of political affiliation for Arab authors.
Talk to Me!
If you’ve read Minor Detail (or when you read Minor Detail) please tell me about it in the comments!