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Keeper of the Dead: An IPAF novel more journalistic than fictional

Born in 1958, journalist-turned-novelist George Yaraq belongs to the generation that came of age during Lebanon’s civil war and witnessed firsthand its many horrors. His first novel Layl (Night), published in 2013, deals with the war and Beirut.

His second novel, Hars al-Mauta (Keeper of the Dead, 2015), which was shortlisted for the 2016 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, also belongs to the genre of Lebanese novels dealing with the memories and life experiences of that tumultuous period, exploring how we can understand its many absurd dynamics.

Other examples include Ghada al-Samman’s Kawabis Beirut (Beirut Nightmares, 1976), Elias Koury’s Al-Jabl al-Sagheer (The Small Mountain, 1977), and Emily Nasrallah’s Tilka l-dhikrayat (Those Memories, 1980).

In Keeper of the Dead, Yaraq fashions an ominous tale around a hospital undertaker belonging to an unidentified Christian sect and gives an incisive view of the corrupt politics of the war: the parties that control the municipalities, the church that is complicit with these parties, the militias who are complicit with the government, and so on. His indifferent and slightly awkward protagonist, Aber, seems at odds with the world around him and with a war he doesn’t really understand. As a series of unfortunate events pulls Aber into the heart of the grisly war, he descends into nonsensical hallucinations about his own mortality. He flees his village, for example, because he thinks he may be accused of attacking a man, even though it becomes clear that the man’s beating had been ordered by a political party and no one suspects Aber.

We get to understand how the failure of the state inevitably buttressed the powers and influence of parties, churches, and militias. Yaraq is at his best when he directs his penetrating gaze to show the hypocrisy of every aspect of such a sectarian system — parties exploiting young people’s need for employment and housing, Christian orders charging people money for their charitable medical services, and militias abusing their power. The entire system seems as if it is going to implode at any second.

Uncovering the complicity of the fighting parties, Yaraq spares no one in his cynical take of the structures that constitute the Christian sects: the church, the monastic orders, the parties, the militias, the local councils — everyone is a culprit.

This collective responsibility for perpetuating a miserable condition motivated by foolish sectarianism might have ennobled Yaraq’s literary efforts were they not marred by the very logic of the war he tries so hard to condemn. When not busy being paranoid, Aber is an impassive observer of horrible atrocities and in some instances even contemplates committing them himself. From rape and necrophilia to stalking a nun, Aber doesn’t seem to be troubled by any of it. Neither does Yaraq properly condemn the misogynistic use of violence against women, dead or alive, that he describes. Aber is troubled enough by the death of his comrades and the killing of innocent civilians, but to him a man having sex with a dead woman is not as horrible.

Aber’s self-fulfilling paranoid hallucinations seem to spiral out of control as the absurdity of the war reaches its peak. This attempt to mirror the hysteria of the war by projecting it on Aber’s psyche and mental state could have been an interesting plot device. But Yaraq’s stolid protagonist fails to inspire pity or compassion, and rather than being existential or philosophical, his fears and morbid fantasies are egotistical and self-indulgent. Thus, in many instances, they read as dull and predictable, rendering parts of the novel almost unreadably flat.

But perhaps the biggest weakness in Keeper of the Dead is the sudden shift in his protagonist’s moral character. Near the end, Aber transforms to a greedy, amoral thief who violently extracts a gold tooth from a corpse, steals from a nun, and tampers with hospital supplies to earn a bit of extra cash. To me it was not clear why a man who had consistently displayed a certain moral temperance and even a certain charity becomes an insatiable, money-grabbing criminal, especially considering his circumstances at that point — he has fallen in love with a colleague and finally has a steady job and a place to stay.

The quality of Yaraq’s prose does not help. Reflecting his journalistic background, it is correct and light but lacks any poetic subtlety and almost all rhythm. While his journalistic style is very well employed in describing military clashes — the reportage-like style of those scenes lends them an impartiality that lets the facts speak for themselves and does not burden the reader with biases — only in very few instances is there any creative insight into his characters’ minds and souls, and even then the prose feels forced and unnecessarily sentimental. “For confusion stifles love, if the star of certainty does not shine across the clouds of assumptions,” reads one such phrase.

Overall, Keeper of the Dead shows little of the literary mastery of writers like Elias Khoury or Rabee Jaber, but it does have certain imaginative inventiveness that could, with the help of a good literary editor, have been transformed into gripping fiction.

This is the first in a series of reviews of the books shortlisted for the 2016 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.