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

The Man Who Snapped His Fingers by Fariba Hachtroudi tr. Alison Anderson

Layout 1A woman working in an asylum centre as a translator is called to fill in for an interview. She utters the word she has all but banished from her vocabulary. Yes.

Now she faces the man with the voice she recognises, the man who snapped his fingers and changed her life, in their country, all those years ago.

One last interview with an asylum seeker who’s a bit of a problem, said my interlocutor, who was not anyone I knew. He went on, It’s a Colonel from the Theological Republic. But – I read your file. “Refuses to do any simultaneous translation for military or government personnel from her country of origin.”

Fariba Hachtroudi’s novella (translated from French) is a dual narrative, switching between two characters as they experience the present and remember the past in flashbacks, a kind of first person stream-of-conscious prose that is tense and withholding, though ultimately revealing.

We know bad things have happened, but no one wishes to relive or explain them, their thoughts rarely go there and yet we feel the presence of the past that hangs over them and the danger in the present. They both live with fear, paranoia and suffer from separation, from the memory and pain of love. They seek answers, atonement and their brief meeting will move them closer to it.

Now the Colonel is one of the hunted. He has been reinstated as a citizen. We have become full-fledged compatriots.  But what about the past? Can you just erase it with a swipe of your hand? And that pool of putrefaction that he waded into, without blinking an eyelid? The stench of it?

They live in isolation and with the memory of a great love and yet they have this terrible connection, which they must move beyond if they are to benefit each other. Can one overcome the memory of torture, the victim and the perpetrator and establish some other understanding?

Torture, like love, destroys, distorts, and transforms. Indubitably. Love, like torture, alters bodies. From the precipices of torment. Both love and torture mortify the soul deep in one’s inner chaos. Where the self disintegrates.

It’s a book that would benefit from being read twice as the narrative isn’t chronological, the characters and their loved ones are revealed slowly so thoughts shared in the beginning without reader knowledge add more to the story if we flip back and reread them.

Though a short novella, it requires concentration and acceptance that the threads will become clear, even while things are unclear, there is a mounting tension and discomfort that is hard to articulate, but is testament to the profound, tightly woven writing style of the author, this her first translation into English.

Fariba Hachtroudi

Fariba Hachtroudi

Fariba Hachtroudi was born in Tehran, leaving Iran after the 1979 revolution and settling in France. She spent 2 years in Sri Lanka teaching and researching Theravada Buddhism.

An account of her return to Iran after 30 years in exile was the subject of a memoir The Twelfth Iman’s a Woman? Following that visit she set up MoHa, a humanitarian foundation that advocates for women’s rights, education and secularism.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions for kindly providing a copy of this novel.