Harsh edges of an unyielding world
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