BEIRUT: In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s beloved 1967 novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the Buendia family’s endlessly energetic patriarch, José Arcadio, founds the city of Macondo alongside a river. With it he creates the initially utopian environment for his ever-growing family, cut off from the troubles of the outside world.
Iraqi novelist, poet, translator and academic Muhsin al-Ramli’s 2010 novel “Dates on my Fingers” shares several passing similarities with Marquez’s epic magical-realist tale, now evident to English-language audiences thanks to Luke Leafgren’s nuanced translation, recently published by The American University in Cairo Press.
Set in Iraq and Spain in the late-20th century, this poignant blend of humor and tragedy is narrated by Saleem al-Mutlaq, grandson of the formidable head of the Mutlaq clan. Iraq is at war with Iran and ruled over by a ruthless, unnamed dictator. In Spain, a cosmopolitan society is at odds with the older generations’ lingering racism.
Like José Arcadio Buendia, Saleem’s grandfather Mutlaq is a visionary and a charismatic, if flawed, leader. His maxim, “If a dog barks at you, don’t bark at it; but if it bites you, bite it back,” explains his outlook on life.
A romantic and part-time poet, Saleem recounts the incident that spawned this aphorism as though narrating a timeless fairy tale: As child his grandfather was attacked by a dog and he answered by biting the animal’s face.
It’s one of many such tangential interludes in “Dates on my Fingers.” Ramli’s short novel contrasts whimsical, often humorous, incidents with the grim fate the authoritarian state visits upon the family.
Ramli skillfully moves back and forth through time, gradually revealing more about his characters’ histories as he develops the contemporary story arc. The tale begins with Saleem encountering his father in a Madrid club after 10 years of self-imposed exile but immediately flashes back to life in the quiet Iraqi village where he grew up.
These flashback sequences allow Ramli to foreshadow future tragedies, imbuing the slow, poetic pace of his prose with a compelling element of mystery.
Although Ramli avoids integrating supernatural elements into the plot, there is something in his style that evokes the tropes of magical realism. The author’s evocative, tightly written prose is equally capable of elevating mundane details to great significance and of reducing the story’s fantastical, fairy-tale-like elements to the everyday.
Like Marquez’s characters, Saleem and his father Noah are bound to the past. Unable to extricate themselves from loyalties to the loved ones they have left behind, they are haunted by memories.
The novel opens with a flashback to Saleem’s teenage years. While Noah takes his sick daughter to the doctor in the nearest town, a scrawny young man reaches out of his car window to grab the girl’s bottom.
Before the crowds can restrain him, Noah attacks the man, removes three bullets from the chamber of his revolver and inserts two of them up the offender’s backside.
The young man turns out to be the nephew of the vice president’s secretary, so Noah is promptly thrown in prison. Led by the family’s redoubtable, God-loving, vengeance-seeking grandfather, his male relatives arm themselves and storm the governor’s house, demanding Noah’s release. Three of them are killed in the firefight. The rest are imprisoned and tortured.
The final indignity awaits the male relatives’ return to their village. Soldiers shave off their moustaches and doctor their identity cards – changing their family name from Mutlaq to Qashmar (naive fool), a word freighted with scorn, disdain and insult.
Undaunted, the head of the family is preparing to attack again when Noah is returned, having been tortured to the point of permanent impotence. Egged-on by his father, Noah swears an oath to one day find the man whose groping set off the unhappy chain of events, and insert into him a final bullet.
Having sworn vengeance on the Quran, he attaches the bullet to his keychain. It remains there for more than a decade, when Saleem comes across him in Spain.
Saleem’s grandfather decides that the entire Mutlaq clan must abandon their village and seek a fresh start. He leads his followers to the Tigris, where they sail out into the middle of the river and cast out their radios, televisions and state identity papers. Reaching the far shore, they found a new village, naming it Qashmars to remind them of their intended vengeance.
Like Macondo, Qashmars initially provides the family of close to 100 people with a peaceful respite from the world. Here Saleem and his cousin Aliya, characterized by tiny eyes and a penchant for smearing dates on her body for Saleem to lick off, share idyllic interludes in a forest clearing.
Their happiness is cut short when Aliya drowns. Foreshadowing more violence to come, the event – coupled with frequent references to 17 corpses rotting in the village – explain Saleem’s self-imposed exile in Madrid, where Ramli himself has lived since 1993 after the Iraqi regime executed his brother.
Saleem’s life is a quiet one. He lives alone in a small apartment, shunned by his neighbors, his walls papered with newspaper photos of Iraq. It’s unfortunate, he notes wryly, that the photos almost exclusively depict images of the dictator and destruction. Preoccupied by sex, he remains deeply religious, shunning alcohol and fornication in favor of a solitude redolent with memories of his dead cousin.
When he stumbles across his father, however, his routine is interrupted. Noah appears a changed man. A nightclub owner wearing a ponytail and earrings, the man who braved torture to avenge his daughter’s honor playfully smacks the behinds of his female staff. As he and Saleem begin to rebuild their relationship, however, the legacy of the past becomes ever clearer.
“Dates on my Fingers” is a beautifully written, poetic and compelling tale of exile and identity, one that explores themes of love and loyalty, family, freedom and the weight of history. A powerful portrait of an oppressed Iraq, Ramli’s novel transforms incidents from the recent past into timeless fables, allowing readers to draw their own parallels.
Muhsin al-Ramli’s “Dates on my Fingers,” translated by Luke Leafgren, is published by The American University in Cairo Press.