By Isabella Hammad, Jonathan Cape, 576 pages, £14.99
Isabella Hammad’s remarkably accomplished debut novel very quickly snares the reader’s attention. Ranging from Nablus in the dying days of the Ottoman empire via Istanbul and Cairo to Montpellier and Paris, and always connecting the personal with the political, the journey of our hero Midhat Kamal — who as the book opens in 1914 is sailing to pursue his studies in medicine in France — makes for compelling reading. The sensation of reality is intense, at various levels. Time and place are fully imagined, with constant attention to the details of dress, furniture and architecture.
With Midhat enrolled at Montpellier university and the dead of the First World War stacking up, the ideas and prejudices of the French historical moment are rendered most successfully in extended party scenes, Midhat speaking “with the accidental definiteness of a person using a second language”. Relationships between characters are precisely noticed, and the characters are brought to life by a fierce interiority. Midhat’s sense of himself, through his different ages and states of consciousness, is a sustained theme, beginning with his discovery at Istanbul’s Lycée Impérial of “the electric feeling of aloneness, victorious and agonising, unearthly”. The physical correlative is consciousness of “the hard outline of his body”, which transforms when he falls in love: “the awareness of his limbs was an agony, he wanted to get out of them, to be elsewhere”.
As a relationship deepens between Midhat and his host Dr Molineu’s daughter Jeannette, Midhat attempts to learn more about Jeannette’s mother, who killed herself. He studies her diagnosis of “hystero-neurasthenia”, and the influence on her of the mysterious Sylvain Leclair. But the pleasures of investigation are superseded by a crisis when Midhat learns that he himself has been an object of study for Dr Molineu, part of a project “linking philology and development” to analyse “the Muslim as a deviation from the onward progression”.
Midhat then flees to tumultuous Paris, where he studies history at the Sorbonne and enjoys soirees with pan-Syrian nationalist intellectuals — including the law student Hani Murad, an associate of Emir (soon to be king) Faisal, who believes that “to unify a country is the supreme goal of mankind”. After the war Midhat returns to a British-occupied Palestine that is at once parochial and cosmopolitan. There are set pieces here to rival the French parties — at the market, in the women’s hammam, at a popular festival that turns into a riot.
Despite familial and financial constraints, Midhat settles back into Nablus, “with its webs of subtle comfort, of knowing and being known”. The passing years bring a transition from Syrian to Palestinian nationalism, amid accumulating political disasters, the Arabs squabbling while — as Hani puts it — “the land is taken from under our feet”. Hani’s young wife Sahar organises demonstrations and women’s committees. There are signs, meanwhile, of incipient class conflict. Sahar and her bourgeois circle oppose the veil in the name of modernity, while the peasant fighters promote it for the sake of communal identity.
By the eruption of the 1936 uprising, “to be a Parisian in Nablus was to be out of step with the times”: Midhat must undergo a painful ripening, a final reckoning with the past. This section is as beautifully told as it is surprising, and is echoed by the storyline about the French scholar and priest Antoine, whose treatment contains a hint of Graham Greene. He is another student of Arab “essences” who, observing the unexpected social transformations brought about by anticolonial resistance, marvels “how fast custom could degrade from its pure form”.
The dialogue flows easily but is sometimes marred by an unnecessarily liberal scattering of unexplained French or Arabic phrases. This perhaps adds flavour, and reaches towards Midhat’s bilingualism, but such sentences as “Only a Parisian could be tellement fier du Languedoc”, or “Lazim, kulluna, rise up”, will surely be disruptive for most readers. Apart from that editorial quibble, Hammad is a natural storyteller. She sustains tension and suspends revelation skilfully, and interweaves character and theme, the global and the local, with the assurance of a much more experienced author.
The writing is deeply humane, its wide vision combined with poised restraint. Zadie Smith’s endorsement on the cover compares Hammad to Flaubert and Stendhal, and the social tapestry she creates certainly has a sense of their worlds, but one could also cite the realism of Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, or set her against a contemporary historical novelist such as Jennifer Egan in her inter-war Manhattan Beach. A story of cultures in simultaneous conflict and concord, The Parisian teems with riches — love, war, betrayal and madness — and marks the arrival of a bright new talent.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd