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A Novel Whose Hero Is a Man Divided, as Is His Native Palestine

There are intimidating 19th-century precedents — Tolstoy, Turgenev, Stendhal — for a narrative structure of historical change filtered through a young person’s coming-of-age, a hero “desperate,” as Hammad describes Midhat, “for any principles to steer his life by.” For Hammad, the closest model would appear to be Flaubert’s great bildungsroman, “A Sentimental Education.” At one point, we even find Midhat reading Flaubert, with a silk bookmark, “heavily frayed,” dangling from the binding.

A less confident writer might have chosen for her hero a man of action, like Midhat’s cousin, the resolute revolutionary Jamil, or a charismatic political leader like his Parisian friend Hani Murad. But Hammad settles instead, like Flaubert, on a conflicted dreamer. Even in the turmoil of a rioting crowd, Midhat is “both inside the scene and … detached from it, observing.” Hammad updates other devices from the great tradition, like the purloined letter. Midhat’s father conceals a heartfelt confession from Jeannette addressed to his son, “like a playing card mislaid and recovered,” with devastating consequences.

As he builds his own family life in Nablus, Midhat comes to be known as “the Parisian,” “al-Barisi,” first affectionately and then, as the French and British erect successive obstacles to Palestinian self-determination, with growing hostility. Like Palestine itself, Midhat remains divided. “I belong here,” he writes Jeannette from Paris, “as much as I belong in Palestine.” In Paris he had acquired the art of disguise, “learning to dissemble and pass between spheres and to accommodate, morally, that dissemblance through an understanding of his own impermanence in each.” In Nablus, he finds himself playing another role, that of a merchant like his father, “the inverse of his persona in Paris.” And this excruciating double fate — “He was two men” — ultimately becomes psychologically unbearable.

People who live between worlds, between identities, are prone to making mistakes. This balancing act of a novel, poised between languages (where the Hippocratic is confused with the “hypocritic” oath), peoples and places, superstition and science, is compounded of misunderstandings. “When I look at my life,” Midhat confesses to a disillusioned French priest, who has himself committed a terrible error, “I see a whole list of mistakes. Lovely, beautiful mistakes.” And yet, he concludes, “I wouldn’t change them.” Isabella Hammad has crafted an exquisite novel that, like Midhat himself, delves back into the confusing past while remaining wholly anchored in the precarious present.

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