Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat tr. Marilyn Booth

Those Who Are Lost

Lebanese Arabic LiteratureWritten in three parts, this award winning novel by Lebanese author Hada Barakat, is composed of a series of six letters written in a stream of consciousness narrative that are interlinked.  The letters are read, but not by their intended recipient, found between the pages of a book, dug out of a bin or otherwise encountered. They prompt the finder to write their own letter.

They are a kind of confession, written by the marginalised, floundering in exile. The letters excavate a depth of feeling that is raw, that traverses memory, hurts, an indifferent ability to cause pain, love, sorrow, longing, an abuse of kindness, a deterioration of the psyche.

“With this novel, I wanted to really listen to those millions of wandering souls who can’t speak for themselves: migrants. Their desperation to leave their country, no matter the cost, even if they know their lives will be at stake.”

Some of the letters are written to a family member, others to a lover, others to nameless recipients.

They are all experiencing deep loss having either been removed from all they’ve known or been connected to, or have been abandoned. Below, I’ve chosen a quote from each letter to give a sense of the narrative.

An undocumented immigrant writes to his former lover. He is unkind and doesn’t understand why she tolerates him. We learn that his mother put him on a train alone when he was eight or nine, effectively abandoning him, a sacrifice to gift him the education she never had. A man across from him is watching him through the window. Paranoia.

I’ve never written a letter in my life. Not a single one. There was a letter in my mind, which I brooded over for years, rewriting it in my head again and again. But I never wrote it down. After all, my mother could hardly read, and so I expect she would have taken my letter to one of the village men with enough education to read it to her. That would have been a disaster though!

a book in arabic writings

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A woman in a hotel room writes to a man from her past. She finds a perplexing letter in the pages of the telephone directory in the room. She wonders whether it was the man who penned it or the woman to which he wrote who left it there and why. It was clearly unfinished. She recalls the sweet succulence of the medlar fruits they ate walking the streets of Beirut.

This sweetness has nothing to do with the act of remembering. It’s not the delicious and sweet because it is linked to the past, to the time of our youth, where nostalgia for that time gives everything we can’t bring back a more beautiful sheen. Nothing in my childhood or my adolescence has ever prompted a longing for the past, a past that seems to me more like a prison than anything else. I am not here in this room in order to return to what was, nor to see you and thus see with you the charming young woman I once was, or how lovely and robust the springtime was that year, there in my home country. That country is gone now, it is finished, toppled over and shattered like a huge glass vase, leaving only shards scattered across the ground. To attempt to bring any of this back would end only in tragedy. It could produce only a pure, unadulterated grief, an unbearable bitterness.

flowers desk pen letter

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An escaped torturer recounts his crimes to his mother. He got the idea to write a letter from observing a woman taking some folded papers from her handbag, read them, then tear them in half and drop them in a bin. He retrieves them.

You would say I deserve all this. You might even disown me, calling me the Devil’s offspring. And if I think of my father, I’d have to admit that you have a point. Still, after all that I’ve been through, is there any point in believing that if I asked you to pardon me, you might do it?

I know you won’t, I know there’s really no hope.

A former prostitute writes to her brother. She is on a plane that had been delayed due to the arrest of a passenger. She found a crumpled up letter shoved between the seat and the wall.

I know why security took him away in handcuffs, because I have a letter in my pocket that this man wrote to his mother. He must have tried to hide it before they reached him, because it’s not the kind of letter anyone would just forget about or be careless enough to lose.

A young queer man recounts to his estranged father his partner’s battle with AIDS. He stumbles across a letter written by a woman in a storage locker at a bar he worked in. That was two years ago, recently he reread it.

I read it again and again, as if I knew that woman personally. Or as if I could actually see her in front of me, asking someone’s forgiveness but discovering she could not get it. And not just because her letter would never arrive. It’s about the need we all have for someone to listen to us, and then to decide they will pardon us no matter what we have done.

Those Who Are Searching

In this second part, brief extracts focused on those who have some connection to the letter writers, those who are trying to find their place, searching, also at a loss.

Those Who Are Left Behind

Finally, the mailman leaves his own note, sheltering in the bombed out remains of the post office.

Neither the internet nor anything else would do away with the need for my rounds, not even after internet cafés were springing up everywhere like mushrooms.

Displaced, at a loss, rootless, untethered. Like the roll of the dice they were born into a place and era where stability, home and belonging would be denied them.

Haunting, at times disturbing, it is a compelling read, the rootlessness and isolation felt by the reader, due to the manner in which the letters are written. The edge of despair palpable. It’s as if the one who stayed, surrounded by destruction, is the only one left with a sense of belonging.

Further Reading

Article: The Return of the NonProdigal Sons by Hoda Barakat

Hoda Barakat

Winner International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2019Hoda Barakat was born in Beirut in 1952. She has worked in teaching and journalism and lives in France. She has published six novels, two plays, a book of short stories and a book of memoirs, as well as contributing to books written in French. Her work has been translated into a number of languages.

She received the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’ in 2002 and the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite National’ in 2008.

Her novels include: The Stone of Laughter (1990), Disciples of Passion (1993), The Tiller of Waters (2000) which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and My Master and my Lover (2004). The Kingdom of This Earth (2012) reached the IPAF longlist in 2013. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, given (at that time) every two years to honour a writer’s achievement in fiction. Voices of the Lost won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction ((IPAF) in 2019.

N.B. Thank you to OneWorld Publications for providing me a review copy

Man Booker International Prize Winner 2019 – Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

It’s been a couple of days since the winner was announced, view the shortlist here, so if like me you hadn’t heard, the winner of the Man Booker International Prize for 2019, an international foreign language work translated into English is:

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi translated by Marilyn Robinson

“It’s less flamboyant than some of the other books, there’s a kind of poetic cunning to it. It starts feeling like a domestic drama in a fascinating world, but with the layers of philosophy, psychology and poetry, you are drawn into the prose, through the relationship between the characters. It encouraged us to read in a slightly different way.”

The £50,000 prize celebrates the finest works of translated fiction from around the world and is divided equally between its author and translator.

This was the book I was most intrigued by from the initial list to be honest, it ticks so many boxes in my reading curiosity, it comes from a little known culture, Oman, and it’s history from the other side, focused on women and ex-slaves (slavery is still a taboo subject in Oman, outlawed there in 1970).

“It’s a sensitive subject and kind of a taboo,” Alharthi said in an onstage interview. “But I think literature is the best platform to discuss sensitive issues. And slavery is not exclusive to Oman – it’s part of human history.”

The paperback comes out in five days, I’ve pre-ordered it, so watch this space for a review soon.

Celestial Bodies tells of family connections and history in the coming-of-age account of three Omani sisters. It is set against the backdrop of an evolving Oman, which is slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, at the crossroads of its complex present.

Jokha Alharthi, the first female Omani novelist to be translated into English, is the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the prize. A Professor with a PhD in Classical Arabic Poetry, she is author of two other novels, two collections of short fiction and a children’s book, her work has been published in English, German, Italian, Korean, and Serbian.  An award-winning author, she has been shortlisted for the Sahikh Zayed Award for Young Writers and won the 2010 Best Omani Novel Award for Celestial Bodies.

Marilyn Booth is an American academic and translator who has translated many works of fiction from Arabic. A fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, she holds the Khalid bin Abdallah Al Saud Chair for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at the Oriental Institute.

I love how the judges summed it up:

A reader picking up this book will be absolutely entranced by this new world of human experience that it opens up. This books tells us about the extreme complexity of the emotional relationships that we have and our engagement with history. We were very impressed by the subtlety of the style and the depth of the writing, its intellectual reach. But also its ability to flex moral muscle. It is a precise and also lyrical translation, and it brings in the music of everyday speech and the music of the poetry that it draws in. The extraordinary thing about this book is it talks of a world in transition, philosophically, politically, intellectually, socially, and that is the age that we live in now.

And what better metaphor of a world in transition, on this week that an Omani woman Jokha Alharthi wins this pretigious literature prize, that this morning on May 23, 2019 her Aunt, Nadhira Alharthy was the first Omani woman to reach the summit of Mt Everest!

The morning after the prize was announced, the Sharjah Book Authority in the United Arab Emirates announced the creation of the Turjuman* Award, valued at $350,000, which will go to publishing houses that facilitate the translation of Arabic literature.

Buy a Copy of Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi via Book Depository

*Turjuman comes from an Arabic root for interpreter or guide, a translator.

Have you read it, or any others from the shortlist?