A journey in the face of death
Throughout the book, the main character searches for fulfillment in the face of a terminal illness
O Road to Paradise” is a novel about one man’s search for fulfillment when he believes he is going to die. His pursuit propels him on a quiet and slow journey to learn about himself and to understand the people around him. The book was written by celebrated author Hassan Daoud. He taught creative writing at the American University of Beirut and worked as a reporter during Lebanon’s civil war. Many of his works have been translated into English, including “No Road to Paradise.” The book was translated by Marilyn Booth who also translated his novel, “The Penguin’s Song.” Originally published in 2013 by Dar Al-Saqi, “No Road to Paradise” was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2015.
You first meet Daoud’s main character in his doctor’s office. He is preparing himself for bad news. He knows he is sick and has known it for some time, but has been unable to say the words out loud to himself as he has been bound by fear. His fear stems from his stature and position as the imam of a small village called Shfqifiyeh in Lebanon. Vaguely, the doctor tells him that he is to come back in a few days and that he will undergo an operation.
The character knows he has cancer and knows it will be the end of him.
Daoud’s book is slow and careful, detailed and brimming with discontent. We meet his character at a moment in his life when his many different paths — the path he is on, the path he desires and the path he fears — are coming together. He must make a choice and choose one path. He is a man who has always done what he was supposed to do, no matter how unhappy it has made him. He has had to fulfill his legacy as an imam, the profession of his father and grandfather and their forefathers. However, from the moment the reader first meets him, he is unsure of himself, his career and whether or not he wants to continue to be an imam.
“Although I had been putting on the abaya and turban of my… profession since I was a very young man, I still find myself reacting as though I always had to put them on in spite of myself,” the character says in the book.
His life has been dictated to him since he was young, his father’s commitment to him and to the profession was the driving force he thought he needed to love his life. However, when he is sent to school to become an imam and returns to a wife he does not know and a house his father has chosen for him, his hesitation grows. “When I started wearing the cloak and turban of the religious, I felt like I was living in someone else’s clothes,” the character says.
His disillusionment with his job is only heightened by his relationship with his wife. Chosen for him because she was the daughter of a relative, their union has been uncomfortable since the beginning. He believes that she hates him, as if she “was a person who was waiting for another life, even expecting a different life to be granted to her.”
Never able to fulfill their duties toward each other, they harbor resentment that is visible in their attitudes, words and actions. They are two people living together with nothing else to hold them but duty and children.
Daoud writes each character meticulously, revealing them through the mostly sympathetic, at times apathetic and critical, eyes of his narrator, the imam.
As the imam comes face to face with his illness, his life begins to crumble around him. He wonders why he has continued to allow himself to move forward with his unhappy life. He questions everything and distances himself from the greatness of his father and grandfather. His illness propels him into a state that changes him, both physically and mentally, and puts his faith into question. As an imam, Daoud’s main character is familiar with death and has recited Qur’anic verses for the dead and been present at many funerals. He is aware that the only known fact about death is its inevitability and that it signals the end of life on earth, but not eternal life. However, his fear takes hold of him when he faces his own death. The imam’s impression of death is powerful as he thinks of those people in the past who “still knew that a space of time separated them from death. For death was hidden. It lay in their bodies, but they didn’t know exactly where it was.” The imam does not have this luxury.
Daoud is a profound writer, his characters multi-faceted, their flaws and fears stronger than their strengths and courage, making them believable and relatable. The life he has created for his imam is anything but quaint. The imam has been unable to fill the shoes of his ancestors, unable to find the peace he has been looking for and unable to find a compatible companion or friend since leaving school in Najaf. He has no one in his village who he can talk to as “the most they expected from me was a response when they requested something,” he says in the book.
Throughout the book, the reader journeys with the imam as he searches for where he belongs in life. It is a story that is not often told, but is immensely relatable.