BEIRUT: When Myriam flees Lebanon for Australia, what she takes with her is indelibly marked by what she leaves behind. In her past are a brother, Baha, killed by flying shrapnel while standing on the balcony of the family home in Zoqaq al-Blat, and a lover, George, who promised to follow her to Adelaide, only to vanish forever.
Traveling with Myriam to a new life in the New World are her mother, Nadia, who connects every significant personal date with a historic incident of conflict, and her father, Salama. Having fled Lebanon in mid-winter, Salama refuses to accept that it’s summer in Adelaide. He sits in his winter clothing with a bright red face and the sweat running down his neck.
Nadia is traumatized by her son’s death, which occurred after she insisted the family remain at home, rather than going to the bomb shelter. By the time they leave Lebanon she has become mute, whether involuntarily or through an act of will, Myriam is not sure.
Salama, meanwhile, is being driven slowly crazy by a piece of shrapnel the size of a lentil that lodged in his brain during the explosion, and which doctors say is too dangerous to remove.
My memory of everything that’s happened is not continuous, but circular
The year is 1980 and the Civil War is ravaging Lebanon. Yet in Lebanese author Iman Humaydan’s “Other Lives,” the year is also 1996. And a dozen other years in between.
Humaydan’s third novel, published in Arabic in 2010 and released this year in a sensitively wrought English translation by Michelle Hartman, is a clever, heartfelt exploration of a woman permanently at odds with her surroundings. Stuck in the past, Myriam feels that the life she is living is not her own. She is haunted by the “other lives” that might have been hers had things gone differently.
The canon of contemporary Arabic fiction contains no shortage of works exploring exile, alienation and a search for belonging, but Humaydan brings something new to the fold.
Her first-person narrator Myriam explains that her memories are not chronological. “My memory of everything that’s happened is not continuous,” she writes, “but circular. I always come back to where I began.”
Told by her doctor that “circular memory is a peculiarity of women,” Myriam is skeptical, but she finds herself unable to remember her own past as a continuous stream. Humaydan cleverly mimics the “spiral form” of her protagonist’s thoughts in the structure of the book, flitting back and forth in time as she gradually reveals the details of Myriam’s lackluster life and assembles the ghosts of the lives that might have been.
The sudden, sometimes seemingly random shifts between past and present are emphasized by Hartman’s decision to translate much of the novel using the present tense, taking the reader along with Myriam on the well-worn paths of her circular memory.
“Other Lives” begins in Mombasa, Kenya, in 1996. Myriam lives in a seaside house with her husband, Chris, a much older, thrice-married man, and her father’s former GP in Adelaide. She does not love her husband and he utterly fails to understand his young wife, expressing exasperation at her habit of keeping her possessions packed up in 13 suitcases, as though ready to depart at any moment.
After four years in Australia and 11 in Kenya, at the outset of the novel, 40-year-old Myriam finally does leave, to return to Lebanon and conduct the necessary steps to reclaim her family home from the Ministry of the Displaced.
From this point, the novel takes off in multiple directions. Humaydan delves back into the protagonist’s past, and that of her Druze family. She also takes readers forwards in time to follow Myriam’s experiences as she returns to Lebanon after an absence of 15 years, to find that the country she knew has gone.
The cast of characters includes the protagonist’s eccentric grandparents and a childhood friend named Olga, with whom Myriam had a sexual relationship as a teenager and who is now dying of cancer.
Myriam soon embarks on a love affair with a Lebanese-American named Nour, who has returned to Lebanon after almost 30 years in search of his “roots.” Meanwhile, she gradually begins to come to terms with her own situation, what she has lost, and what remains.
“Other Lives” is a sensitive and detailed reflection on the feelings of dislocation, loss and alienation that come with exile. Humaydan’s prose is simple and evocative, her short novel a complex portrait of a woman’s interior world.
Those who enjoy books with tight plotting and dramatic action sequences may find “Other Lives” too slow, but readers who allow Humaydan’s delicately layered emotional landscape to build will come away richer. There is action and drama here, but it’s interspersed with something altogether more subtle. – I.S.
Iman Humaydan’s “Other Lives,” translated by Michelle Hartman and published by Interlink World Fiction, is available from local bookstores.