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There’s a touching moment in the middle of The Parisian when a friend of the novel’s hero, Midhat, is trying to bring him up to speed with events in their home town, Nablus, in Palestine, in the interwar years. “But Midhat was only half listening, because he was thinking about the way his own charade might be told after he was dead, when he no longer held the reins on his memories, and they galloped off into the motley thoughts and imaginations of others.”
It is Midhat’s great-granddaughter, Isabella Hammad, who has taken up the reins in her doorstopper of a debut. The 27-year-old novelist was inspired by the real-life Midhat Kamal, a charismatic Palestinian born at the end of the 19th century, nicknamed “the Parisian” for his European ways, whose memory had been kept alive through amusing tales handed down the generations.
The Parisian is one of the most ambitious first novels to have appeared in years. It has attracted glowing endorsements from Jonathan Safran Foer and Zadie Smith (Hammad’s creative writing teacher at NYU), who called it “surpassingly intelligent”. Written in soulful, searching prose, it’s a jam-packed epic that sets the life of one man against the backdrop of the fall of the Ottoman empire, the British mandate over Palestine and the Arab uprising for independence. Hammad wades through more than 20 years of political upheaval to explore ideas about cultural identity, parental betrayal and the accidental harm we often cause others.
When the novel opens in 1914, Midhat is leaving Nablus (now in the West Bank) for Montpellier to study medicine. Here, he takes up residence with garrulous university professor Frédéric Molineu and his daughter, Jeannette, a philosophy graduate preoccupied by her mother’s suicide. To Molineu’s circle of friends (increasingly depleted by the first world war), Midhat is the “famous oriental guest”. But having been educated in cosmopolitan Constantinople, Midhat believes his difference is no difference. “‘You know, the hills here are the same as our hills. They seem to think I live in a desert,’” he tells a French friend.
Before long, Midhat and Jeannette’s feelings for each other progress from inexplicable flutters of the heart to insuperable infatuation. Hammad’s depiction of the flush of first love is irresistible, a giddy drama of lingering looks and subterfuge that reverberates through the entire novel. “They delighted in the agony of resisted desire, which being resisted was sustained, and in this mutual abnegation they colluded like thieves.”
However, when Midhat discovers he’s the focus of Professor Molineu’s anthropological study into the “primitive” Arab brain, he feels insulted and takes off to Paris, where he switches his studies to history and becomes something of a ladies’ man. After the war, when the Ottoman empire is defeated and the British and French have carved up the spoils, Midhat returns to his ancient homeland to find his merchant father has got wind of his reckless lifestyle. He insists his son marry a local woman and devote himself to the family trade.
Midhat conforms, but still strolls around dusty Nablus in a double-breasted pinstripe suit and cane, gaining a reputation as “a sybarite, an optimist, a success with women, a carefree lover of the west”. And he remains caught up in his inner life while all around him, friends and family are absorbed into the political turmoil. Following the Balfour declaration, which supported the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, the Arabs begin to fight the British for their independence. Nablus, “a town of fanatics … troublemakers”, becomes a focal point for resistance.
As the panorama widens, Hammad gets under the skin of a huge cast of real and imagined characters, including King Faisal of Iraq. She’s also not afraid to send the novel off at a tangent for the sake of a good anecdote; another of her ancestors managed to acquire four new wives while on the run from Turkish soldiers. The book has already drawn comparisons with Stendhal and Flaubert for its 19th-century seriousness.
It reminded me more of Middlemarch, with its marital politics, horse-trading dilemmas and young lovers who must learn to compromise. Hammad is a natural social novelist with an ear for lively dialogue as well as an ability to illuminate psychological interiority. While she depicts the divisions in the Middle East with a bitter clarity, the uprisings and political machinations that dominate the second half of the novel never feel quite so alive as the inner conflicts of her characters. In France, Midhat is “awakened to his own otherness”, experiencing what it is “to be in a place but not of it”. But he’s never truly at home in Palestine either and as the region is plunged into the fight for self-determination, he remains detached from the upheaval. After he suffers a nervous breakdown triggered by a letter from the past, he admits: “I slept through it all.”
The Parisian could be an unbearably sad book, a tale of national and personal defeat. But it’s also a story about the power of imagination to keep alive the dream of independence and a love long since dead. After years of silence from Jeannette, Midhat is still able to “invent reasons and ignore facts to preserve hope”. Hammad is a writer of startling talent – and The Parisian has the rhythm of life.
• The Parisian by Isabella Hammad is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian
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