A Novel Whose Hero Is a Man Divided, as Is His Native Palestine
By Isabella Hammad
“Time was a treacherous distance,” Isabella Hammad writes in her dazzling debut novel, “and it would not be crossed but through the dangerous substitutions of the imagination.” Perilous journeys in time and space form the crisscross weave of “The Parisian,” a deeply imagined historical novel with none of the usual cobwebs of the genre. Set in France and a deftly delineated Palestine, from the outbreak of World War I to the escalating violence amid the Arab general strike of 1936, “The Parisian” has an up-close immediacy and stylistic panache (a laugh is “the drawbridge to weeping,” a garden is “berserk with weeds”) that are all the more impressive coming from a London-born writer still in her 20s.
Midhat Kamal is a Parisian only in the limited sense that Henry James called his deracinated Americans “Europeans.” He is a native of Nablus, the ancient city (now in the Israeli-occupied West Bank) nestled between mountains 30 miles north of Jerusalem and mired in the Ottoman Empire in October 1914, when the novel opens. Educated in a French-inspired private school in Constantinople, Midhat is sent to Montpellier to study medicine. His father, a rich textile merchant, wants to shield his 19-year-old firstborn from conscription in the Turkish Army. Motherless from the age of 2, Midhat is eager to please his emotionally distant father, who has remarried and moved much of his business to Cairo.
Midhat experiences Montpellier with wary intensity. Every piece of furniture (“the shining black hip of a piano,” “the lip of the carpet that ran up the stairs”) harbors an animistic twinge of the foreign. Puzzling French words are left untranslated, for Midhat and for us, while he himself speaks with “the accidental definiteness of a person using a second language.” Uncanny reminders of Nablus (“the two mountains, the stone buildings, the small streets”) merely augment his sense of estrangement.
Midhat’s kindly host, Frédéric Molineu, is a widowed professor of anthropology. Molineu’s mercurial daughter, Jeannette, becomes the object of Midhat’s romantic longings, their intimacy nurtured by the shared ache of lost mothers. For Midhat, mystery surrounds the Molineu social circle. Is the blood-and-soil vintner Sylvain Leclair as sinister as he seems? What precisely occurred between Sylvain and Jeannette’s mother before she shot herself in despair? And what shady hold does Sylvain have on Jeannette, with whom Midhat finds himself falling desperately in love?
Then Midhat accidentally discovers, to his horror, that Molineu has a scholarly interest in him, has in fact taken him into his house as a sort of human guinea pig, to see how a young Muslim might assimilate to European civilization. Shattered by this betrayal — “If he was the father’s subject, how could he be the daughter’s husband?” — Midhat lashes out at Molineu and Leclair. When Jeannette loyally sides with her father, Midhat leaves Montpellier and medicine, and Jeannette, behind.
He spends the next four years in Paris studying history at the Sorbonne and assuming, as defensive social armor, the style and habits (the cane, the flamboyant ties, the billowing mouchoir) of an exotic flâneur. While Hammad lingers lovingly over every detail of Midhat’s experiences in Montpellier, the chapters set in Paris are an accelerating flurry of partially glimpsed locales: the lecture halls of the Sorbonne, the night life of Pigalle, the cramped St.-Germain apartments of Midhat’s Arab friends.
In a novel closely attentive to watches and clocks and the claims of competing calendars, three kinds of time, in addition to the merely mechanical, unfold across “The Parisian.” There is the internal time of memory, spotlighted on Midhat’s efforts to salvage what he can from his tempestuous year in Montpellier. There is accordionlike narrative time: the nested flashbacks and temporal disjunctions of a sure-handed novelist. And, finally, there is historical time, the rise and fall of empires as Palestine, “diseased with desire for a nation,” changes hands from the Ottoman Turks to the paternalistic British amid steadily mounting Jewish immigration from pogrom-ridden Europe.
[Read our profile of Isabella Hammad.]
After Midhat’s return to Nablus, historical events increasingly impinge on his efforts to put together a life in sync with his father’s longings and his own yearning for belonging. His courtship of Fatima Hammad, a spirited and well-connected local woman (who, intriguingly, shares a family name with the author), plays out against escalating civil unrest following the British assertion of control over Palestine. “In May 1920, while everyone else was discussing the Mandate, Midhat was thinking about Fatima Hammad.”
There are intimidating 19th-century precedents — Tolstoy, Turgenev, Stendhal — for a narrative structure of historical change filtered through a young person’s coming-of-age, a hero “desperate,” as Hammad describes Midhat, “for any principles to steer his life by.” For Hammad, the closest model would appear to be Flaubert’s great bildungsroman, “A Sentimental Education.” At one point, we even find Midhat reading Flaubert, with a silk bookmark, “heavily frayed,” dangling from the binding.
A less confident writer might have chosen for her hero a man of action, like Midhat’s cousin, the resolute revolutionary Jamil, or a charismatic political leader like his Parisian friend Hani Murad. But Hammad settles instead, like Flaubert, on a conflicted dreamer. Even in the turmoil of a rioting crowd, Midhat is “both inside the scene and … detached from it, observing.” Hammad updates other devices from the great tradition, like the purloined letter. Midhat’s father conceals a heartfelt confession from Jeannette addressed to his son, “like a playing card mislaid and recovered,” with devastating consequences.
As he builds his own family life in Nablus, Midhat comes to be known as “the Parisian,” “al-Barisi,” first affectionately and then, as the French and British erect successive obstacles to Palestinian self-determination, with growing hostility. Like Palestine itself, Midhat remains divided. “I belong here,” he writes Jeannette from Paris, “as much as I belong in Palestine.” In Paris he had acquired the art of disguise, “learning to dissemble and pass between spheres and to accommodate, morally, that dissemblance through an understanding of his own impermanence in each.” In Nablus, he finds himself playing another role, that of a merchant like his father, “the inverse of his persona in Paris.” And this excruciating double fate — “He was two men” — ultimately becomes psychologically unbearable.
People who live between worlds, between identities, are prone to making mistakes. This balancing act of a novel, poised between languages (where the Hippocratic is confused with the “hypocritic” oath), peoples and places, superstition and science, is compounded of misunderstandings. “When I look at my life,” Midhat confesses to a disillusioned French priest, who has himself committed a terrible error, “I see a whole list of mistakes. Lovely, beautiful mistakes.” And yet, he concludes, “I wouldn’t change them.” Isabella Hammad has crafted an exquisite novel that, like Midhat himself, delves back into the confusing past while remaining wholly anchored in the precarious present.
Christopher Benfey teaches literature at Mount Holyoke College. His new book on Kipling and America will appear this summer.
By Isabella Hammad
566 pp. Grove Press. $27.