Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Syria: States of Passion, by Nihad Sirees

Although I found this book well-written enough to keep me reading to the end, I can't say that I loved the book exactly. I didn't really feel emotionally connected enough to the protagonist, but other readers may well get more involved than I did.

Perhaps it was because the protagonist was a male and his feelings for the women in the book somehow failed to move me.

The narrator is a manager in the Agricultural Bank in Syria, and one stormy night his car breaks down in the countryside. When he goes to look for help, he comes across a remote house inhabited only by an old man and his mysterious butler, and there over a period of several days the old man relates to him the story of his life, which forms the narrative of the book. The butler however does not seem to want the story to be told and goes to fairly extreme lengths to prevent it.

There are some slightly irritating disclaimers in the early part of the story about how the narrator does not know how to tell a story properly, and he begs for forgiveness if it is not well done.. I didn't really find that that device made me believe in him as a bank functionary rather than a writer, any more than if it had been left out.

That aside, it is an interesting enough story, and the background of Syrian history from the early part of the twentieth century onwards is well described.

Nihad Sirees was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1950. He worked as an engineer, and later became an acclaimed novelist, but under pressure from the Syrian government, left for Egypt in 2012 and now lives and works in Berlin.

States of Passion was first published in Lebanon in 1998. It was translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss and published by Pushkin Press in 2018 with the help of an English PEN Award.