Attentive readers of the Guardian’s news pages will already know about Arabesques. A 1986 report from Jerusalem told readers of a first novel by a 36-year-old writer which was making a big stir: it had already sold 22,000 copies. (An equivalent figure in Britain would be a hardback sale of 270,000.) A very important contributory factor behind the sensation the book was causing was the fact that its author, Anton Shammas, was an Arab writing in Hebrew, his ‘stepmother tongue’. Shammas describes himself as an ‘Israeli Arab’ – an ambiguous, problematic identity which is the subject of his novel.
The early pages of Arabesques invite us to think that the book is closer to autobiography than to fiction: they recount incidents in the family history of the narrator – who shares the same name as the author – and describe the village where the family lives. Fassuta is an Arab village in Galilee, built on the site of the Crusader castle of Fassove which was, in turn, built on the site of the Jewish village of Mifshata. Fassuta – a real place – is now part of Israel, and its Christian inhabitants belong to the 700,000-strong Arab minority inside the 1949 ‘green line’ of the Israeli state. Everyone in Fassuta has a story to tell, and the historical fact of dispossession means that this story is one of the few things they really own; their only inalienable possession is their personal history. Arabesques is dense with these histories, which Shammas has set out to tell on behalf of the people of Fassuta. Not all the stories are sad, but they tend to focus around three periods which were and are unmistakably bitter for the village: the Arab Rebellion of 1936/7, the war of partition in 1947/8, and the present. Family history and the history of the region overlap, and one of the triumphs achieved by Shammas is to show how the large-scale narratives of textbook history are built out of, and at the same time woven into, ordinary lives. 1947, for instance, is remembered in the Shammas family as the year Anton’s father made a doomed attempt to set up in Haifa as a cobbler – a personal humiliation borne on the wings of a political catastrophe for his people.
One of the lessons of the book is that the present is built out of what we know of the past: change what we know and the circumstances of our lives change also. The central narrative impetus of Arabesques starts to emerge when Anton finds out, through a sequence of chance encounters, an important fact about his family past. The dead cousin after whom Anton was named is not dead at all: he was secretly adopted by a childless rich couple and rechristened Michael Abyad; now a doctor, he lives in America and makes occasional visits to Beirut and the Palestinian Centre for Research. A few days after hearing the story Anton sees a magazine picture of a man standing by a bicycle, looking at bodies in the aftermath of the massacre at the Sabra refugee camp: he is Dr Michael Abyad, Anton Shammas’s double and secret namesake.
Or is he? The source of the information – a Fassuta woman called Layla Khoury who married the son of a famous Palestinian fighter, converted to Islam and changed her name to Surayyah Sa’id – has reasons of her own for telling this disturbing story. And, as the novel progresses, it isn’t at all clear whether or not she has told it at all: the chapter after Anton recounts the adoption story begins with a disclaimer. ‘But in fact I never set foot in the village of Silwad, and the whole trip to see Surayyah Sa’id is just a tale.’ Arabesques is not an autobiography, a straightforward life, at all, but something far sneakier and more complicated: a counterlife, with fiction and fact constantly ducking and weaving around each other. As in Philip Roth’s novel of that name, moments that look like intimate revelations are shown to be virtuoso displays of formalist trickery, and vice versa. For the first sixty or so pages it is possible to read Arabesques as an intelligently contemporary attempt at writing an autobiographical Bildungsroman: but then it becomes clear that the novel is more ambitious than that, and derives much of its inspiration from Proust – specifically, from the Proustian project of self-creation through writing. Shammas wants to invent himself, just as he wants to reclaim his past, through the writing of his novel. Anton goes to Paris, where he pays a visit to Proust’s grave; then, as the beneficiary of a creative writing programme, he goes to Ohio. He meets and spars with a Jewish Israeli writer called Yehoshua Bar-On, who wants to write a novel which has a sympathetic Israeli Arab as its hero.
It is difficult to write about Arabesques without making literary comparisons – Garcia Marquez, Roth, Proust – as if Shammas, deprived of a literal homeland, is applying for citizenship in an international literary community. The effect is enhanced by knowledge of the fact that Shammas (like Beckett, whose work he has translated) is writing in a language other than his own. He has said that when he tried to write his novel in Arabic he could sense his family breathing over his shoulder: Hebrew gave him the aesthetic distance necessary to impose his own fictions. But while this cultural cross-pollination is a vital energising force behind the book, it doesn’t come without a price. A French teacher of mine – an actual Frenchman, this was – once told me that when a literary effect couldn’t be rendered accurately the aim, in translating it, should be ‘to produce an equivalent titillation of the mind’. It struck me then, and strikes me still, as a lousy idea, but it was brought to mind several times while reading Arabesques which, according to the translator’s note, is written ‘in a very allusive and layered kind of Hebrew with equally complex Arabic resonances, especially in the rhythm section’. It sometimes seems a little as if the translation – in which Shammas collaborated – tries too hard to imitate the effect of this ‘allusive and layered’ prose. ‘My father preserved the bran pillow as a memorial less to his mother than to the world that had vanished, as the saying goes, like the chaff which the wind driveth away from the threshing floor of the village he had left behind for the city in the early 1960s.’ It says a lot for Arabesques, and for the imaginative and intellectual pressure behind it, that objecting to the translation amounts to a criticism of the book rather than to dismissal of it.
No such criticism can be made of Blösch, which has had the benefit of an exemplary translation by Michael Hofmann. Beat Sterchi’s stir-causing first novel was published in German in 1983: it describes the experiences of Ambrosio, a Spanish gastarbeiter in Switzerland. Ambrosio works on Farmer Knuchel’s dairy farm in Innerwald, where the small, wiry southerner is baffled by the prosperity, stoicism and size of everything around him – dogs as big as cows, cows as big as elephants. His viewpoint gives the Innerwald chapters of the novel a gentle, lyrical flavour, while also allowing Sterchi to stress the exhausting difficulty of the manual work Ambrosio performs, and the nastiness of the local peasantry. Some of the best passages in the book evoke the smugness, small-mindedness and xenophobia of Sterchi’s compatriots: he seems to be about as fond of his fellow Swiss as Thomas Benhard is of his fellow Austrians.
These chapters alternate with what is happening seven years later. Driven out of Innerwald by the locals, Ambrosio now works in an abattoir – one of the places where stiff Swiss restrictions on the employment of foreign labour are found to be more flexible. The slaughterhouse chapters describe the events of a single day, and set out to evoke the brutality and monotony of the work through a fractured, modernistic style which spares the reader nothing of the horror of ‘the cow-demolition process’. One of the strongest scenes in the novel has Ambrosio staggering out of the slaughterhouse, blood all over his abattoir clothing, and confronting an appalled group of engineers waiting for the beginning of their working day: ‘What kind of process was it that spat out blood-rinsed foreigners as a by-product, and allowed them to wander out through the gates?’ The novel imposes the engineers’ discomfort on its readers.
The eponymous Blösch is the novel’s other central character, if ‘character’ is the right word: she’s a cow, the star cow on Farmer Knuchel’s Alpine homestead. (The name ‘Blösch’ is traditionally given to any cow with a hide of ‘sheer and unbrindled red’.) Cow-herds have strictly-defined internal hierarchies, apparently, and Blösch is the lead cow on Farmer Knuchel’s herd, the first cow through the gate and the first into the trough; she thrives on Knuchel’s low-tech, old-fashioned approach to his animals. To Ambrosio, the enormous Simmenthal cattle embody ‘morbid forbearance and dignified passivity’, with at the same time ‘a civilised readiness to compromise on serious matters’; ‘the warmth they radiated, their incessant inner activity, their endless ruminating, digesting, multiplying, lactating, producing-even-while-they-slept, all that impressed Ambrosio in spite of himself.’ But the animals are doomed. ‘Every cow in Knuchel’s shed had a vertebra that one day would be split. All of them would one day climb unwept and unsung the shit-smeared ramp of a cattle-truck and disappear in the direction of the slaughterhouse.’
Seven years later, Ambrosio recognises a pitifully shrivelled Blösch among the cattle that have arrived at the abattoir to be slaughtered. The recognition precipitates a crisis for Ambrosio, a crisis which eventually leads to him walking out of the slaughterhouse, and which makes the politics of the novel – a blend of Marxism and animal rights – explicit for the first and only time. ‘What had been taken from the cow had been taken from himself ... He had laughed at Knuchel’s cows for their passivity and meekness, but the display of unconditional obedience, of obsequiousness and motiveless mooing that he had witnessed on the ramp, he had also witnessed in himself, to his own disgust. In Blösch on that Tuesday morning, Ambrosio had recognised himself.’
Any novel needs to earn the reader’s confidence before it can get away with making its own moral as clear as that. Blösch does so by the strictness with which it has hitherto avoided explicit statement of that moral. The processes of dehumanisation and alienation in the workplace are shown rather than told. But the very thoroughness with which we are shown this loss of humanity goes some way to leaching the interest and the imaginative freedom of movement out of the characters who work in the slaughterhouse: an effect compounded by the way Sterchi forsakes a gradual movement towards horror for repeated immersions in it. When the slaughterhouse workers make their final gestures of the novel – two of them walking out, the others drinking in turn a ladle of blood from a cow’s freshly cut throat – it’s hard for the reader to feel that the redemptory actions amount to much. But perhaps it’s appropriate that Blösch offers no consolation or uplift, while the scenes and conditions it depicts are still with us.
Both of these novels have suffered from being published in the autumn. Whatever one thinks of literary awards, the Booker Prize is having an unmistakably malign effect in the way it hoovers up most of the available review space for itself, creating a kind of critical black hole into which novels which aren’t prize contenders disappear. Arabesques and Blösch – both of them important books, but both of them also Booker-ineligible translations – have been under-reviewed. Another kind of book which suffers neglect is the first novel; no first novel published in Britain would get the kind of attention Shammas’s and Sterchi’s books received in their own countries. Admirers of Neil Bissoondath’s collection of stories, Digging up the mountains, who were eagerly scanning their newspapers for tidings of his first novel might be forgiven for not noticing that it had been published. But it has: and A Casual Brutality is a very impressive debut. Perhaps Bissoondath will have been warned not to expect too much attention by his uncle, V.S. Naipaul.
A Casual Brutality is narrated by Dr Raj Ramsingh, an Indian from the Caribbean island of Casquemada, who has returned home after qualifying in Toronto. He brings with him his wife Jan – who rapidly starts to dislike the island and the extended-family life in which she is immersed – and his son. Dr Ramsingh’s motives for returning to Casquemada aren’t entirely pure: the country is enjoying an oil boom, and some people are starting to make a lot of money. ‘Economics as buying spree,’ comments Ramsingh’s uncle. ‘All the money did was sharpen our evils.’ The social structure of the island is fragile, and compromised by its history: the British who colonised Casquemada ‘had other, more valuable lessons to teach, but they had paid only lip-service to their voiced ideals, had offered in the end but the evils of their actions, had propagated but the baser instincts, which took root and flourished so effortlessly in this world they called, with a kind of black humour, new.’ The polity of Casquemada begins to collapse and violence, both random and politically-motivated, becomes common.
Bissoondath’s delightful talent for the evocation of character and place carries the story along rapidly, and he displays an ability for elegant encapsulation – Ramsingh’s shop-owning grandfather is, ‘in his taciturn way, a happy victim of the dictatorship of small business’ – as well as for vivid oratio recta. (I liked the grandmother, forever boasting about her diabetes: ‘I sufferin from sugar.’) He does, however, have another manner – a much less successful one – in which an impulse towards aphorism is given full reign. ‘There are times,’ runs the first line of the novel, ‘when the word hope is but a synonym for illusion: it is the most virile of perils.’ In the attempt to be lapidary that sentence has become tangled and fussy: nor does it help to establish an impression of Ramsingh’s character. Compare the opening of a novel with which A Casual Brutality – deliberately? – has much in common, V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River: ‘The World is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.’
There the manner is a voice and the voice is a character. In A Casual Brutality I sometimes felt that the tragic events of the narrative, and the background chaos of Casquemada, were being used as a way of setting up another excursion into world-weary sententiousness. ‘I have spent my life polishing shadows,’ the doctor says, after he has suffered the novel’s central catastrophe. These unsuccessful episodes, however, are concentrated at the beginning and end of the book, when its view of life is at its bleakest and most explicit: for the most part Ramsingh – passive, weak, intelligent – is a memorable example of that tricky breed, the likeable unlikeable narrator. And anyone in this country who does read first novels will find, if they read this one, that its portrayal of a greedy, violent society, squandering once-and-for-all oil revenue, has a certain resonance.