Harsh edges of an un­yield­ing world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Por­tia Lind­say

The Se­cret Maker of the World By Ab­bas El-Zein UQP, 192 pp, $19.95 AB­BAS El-Zein’s ac­claimed 2009 mem­oir Leave to Re­main de­tails his life in Beirut and be­yond, and the NSW Pre­mier’s Lit­er­ary Awards judges at the time said it “cap­tures the com­plex­i­ties of iden­tity and pol­i­tics, his­tory and re­li­gion across time and space’’. The short sto­ries of The Se­cret Maker of the World pick up this thread, be­gin­ning with a story set in war-torn Beirut and spin­ning out­wards through the per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal con­flicts of a di­verse cast of char­ac­ters.

In Fields of Vi­sion the hours and days of a young Le­banese sniper are caught be­tween his mun­dane, al­most cliched, gen­eral in­ter­ests — Su­per­man comics and fan­ta­sis­ing about a woman vis­i­ble in her apart­ment — and his seem­ingly in­dis­crim­i­nate use of his power to maim and kill. He toys with civil­ians the way that a child tears the wings off a fly, though his power may not be as bound­less as the ar­ro­gance of youth and firearm ac­cess would have him be­lieve. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween war and ev­ery­day life is strange and scary, even seen through the eyes of the leer­ing sol­dier.

In The Yel­low River we travel from the streets of Beirut to China, where the Boat­man of Xiaotan makes a liv­ing from fish­ing bod­ies from the Yel­low River and re­turn­ing them to their fam­i­lies; in Red Car­pet it’s the city of Lid­bourne — and a town hall that could be any town hall — where the mayor is about to deliver a ca­reer-mak­ing speech. Power, or more pre­cisely the il­lu­sion of power, is cen­tral to this collection.

From the first story to the cli­mac­tic twist in the fi­nal story, The Se­cret Maker of the World, about a deaf woman try­ing to track down her lost love, char­ac­ters are of­ten not who they seem and power dy­nam­ics are com­plex and sub­ject to shift at a mo­ment’s no­tice. While the jus­tice is not nec­es­sar­ily po­etic, come­up­pance is cer­tainly a part of many of these sto­ries.

Like Trans­ac­tions, Ali Al­izadeh’s bril­liant short-story collection of last year, El-Zein’s tales have a global sen­si­bil­ity, sweep­ing through cul­tural clashes with stark rev­e­la­tion and flashes of hu­mour. The Ir­ish Ken­nard sis­ters play­fully nam­ing a Syr­ian ped­dler Conor in His Other Cloak sits ad­ja­cent to Re­spect, where the hard­work­ing labourer Mo­ham­mad frets about how to give a good Chris­tian burial to the man he has mur­dered.

Un­like the nar­ra­tive chain of Trans­ac­tions, though, The Se­cret Maker of the World does not form a patch­work of in­ter­min­gling re­la­tion­ships. There is a sense of isolation here. The char­ac­ters in Trans­ac­tions pass through one an­other’s sto­ries, cre­at­ing a strong sense of in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness. This collection is sim­i­larly worldly, but each story stands alone and of­ten each char­ac­ter does too. Por­tia Lind­say is a free­lance writer and pro­gram of­fi­cer at the NSW Writ­ers Cen­tre.

El-Zein sweeps through not just cul­tures but time. In Bird’s Eye geog­ra­pher Yaqut Al Ha­maoui escapes the city of Merv im­me­di­ately be­fore its sack­ing by Mon­gol ar­mies, with his vast Ara­bic work the Com­pen­dium of Coun­tries. El-Zein con­jures his last mo­ments in the doomed city. Though the story is set in 1221, this rav­aged city has a con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance.

Tonal shifts dis­tin­guish each story but al­low them to nat­u­rally sit aside one an­other. Mo­hammed — a man pushed to break­ing point — de­liv­ers his ou­trage and ex­pla­na­tion in an ur­gent stream of con­scious­ness, while in Nat­u­ral Jus­tice a Dubai pub­lisher calmly nar­rates in­jus­tices past and present dur­ing the course of one flight. On this flight, an­other pas­sen­ger is lit­er­ally the face­less vic­tim of war but also a voice of com­pas­sion.

One of El-Zein’s char­ac­ters — a Bri­tish priest work­ing in Aus­tralia in His Other Cloak — as­serts that “he can ob­serve the world in two ways. With irony, even a lit­tle sar­casm, and an eye for the com­i­cal in the hu­man con­di­tion. Or with sober em­pa­thy, the most proper dis­po­si­tion’’. El-Zein, too, flits be­tween these two states as the hypocrisy and bru­tal­ity of his char­ac­ters un­fold in his prose.

Ev­ery story ex­cept the fi­nal, tit­u­lar one is nar­rated from a male per­spec­tive, so The Se­cret Maker of the World sur­prises. The reader is so en­veloped in a male per­spec­tive by this point — and many char­ac­ters speak with vi­o­lence, ar­ro­gance or ca­sual ob­ser­va­tion of their own or other’s bod­ies — that a men­tion of the nar­ra­tor’s breasts is an al­most jar­ring way of switch­ing per­spec­tive. El-Zein to his credit doesn’t let the reader sit eas­ily with their as­sump­tions.

Early in Leave to Re­main El-Zein as­serts that he “would find him­self pulled to­wards ex­tremes’’ and this per­spec­tive on his life can per­haps also be ap­plied to his sto­ry­telling, as The Se­cret Maker of the World is a book of ex­tremes, of­ten dwelling in harsh and un­ex­pected edges of a vast world.

This is not to say that bru­tal im­agery can­not also be beau­ti­ful. There is beauty to be found here, and hu­mour, of­ten in­ter­min­gled with the power and the vi­o­lence.

Ab­bas El-Zein has said he finds him­self pulled to­wards ex­tremes

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