Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Writer's Silence, A Leader's Roar

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

The ongoing civil war in Syria continues to claim more lives amidst opposing claims and shifting theatres of conflict. At such a time, Syrian writer Nihad Sirees’s novel, The Silence and the Roar – written in 2004 and now available in an English translation by Max Weiss – offers an opportune look at life under a dictatorship.  It’s one of the winners of the 2013 English PEN Awards for Writing in Translation and Sirees, banned from public and cultural life in his country, has spoken in a recent interview of how the book had to be smuggled into Syria from Lebanon. The Silence and the Roar deserves to be read because, in the words of its author, “in a novel, the reader can discover more things than if he simply follows the news”.

At the heart of the book is the ongoing tussle between the silence and roar of its title. The silence is that of its narrator, a writer muzzled by an unnamed tyrannical regime; the roar is that of the Leader, who encourages the populace to hold cacophonous rallies on every occasion. The novel’s events take place during the course of a single day, the twentieth anniversary of the Leader’s coming to power. Naturally, slogan-chanting crowds fill the streets, and for 31-year-old Fathi Sheen, the censored author, the noise is unbearable. As he says, striking a distinctly Orwellian note: “The roar produced by the chants and the megaphones eliminates thought. Thought is retribution, a crime, treason against the Leader. And insofar as calm and tranquillity can incite a person to think, it is essential to drag out the masses to these roaring marches every once in a while in order to brainwash them and keep them from committing the crime of thought”.

In a half-surreal, half-satirical tone Fathi speaks of spending the hot summer’s day in the company of his girlfriend, making his way through crowds and then visiting his mother, living alone after the death of his father -- to discover that she’s planning to get married to one of the Leader’s spineless cronies. This throws up a dilemma: should he give in to the promotional demands of the regime and be “a dummy amidst dummies”, or should he continue to let his silence articulate his opposition?

The satire is broad, and there’s more than a touch of the Kafkaesque, as with another recent novel from France, Phillipe Claudel’s The Investigation. At one point, Fathi tries to enter the ruling party’s building to reclaim his identity card, to be told that only those with identity cards can be admitted. Once inside, he discovers, among other things, that there’s a team of researchers and psychologists whose main occupation is to come up with memorable slogans extolling the regime. (“One, two, three, four, we love the Leader more and more.”) Here, and at many other times in the novel, Sirees punctures the carefully-constructed public image of autocrats.

How do individuals cope with such oppression? “Laughter and sex were our two weapons of survival,” says Fathi when he’s with his girlfriend, putting one in mind of similar satirical work by Egypt-born Albert Cossery. Elsewhere, he states: “Talking to oneself can keep a person insulated from his environment and make him more accepting of the world and all its burdens”. At other times, Fathi speaks of the historical differences between Greek and Persian attitudes towards despots, and Hannah Arendt’s take on the symbiotic relationship between the ruler and the ruled. None of this is to say that the novel becomes bogged down in theory; on the contrary, Fathi’s sometimes-cheeky, sometimes-despairing tone remains engaging throughout.

In a brief afterword included in the English edition, Sirees writes of another, more ominous roar, one that he “never thought the leader would ever be capable of using: the roar of artillery, tanks and fighter jets that have already opened fire on Syrian cities”. The Silence and the Roar is a brave and necessary attempt to fight back.

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