I have not had occasion to read Dimitri Nasrallah’s first novel,
which received rave reviews and a McAuslan First Book Prize. But I did
read an essay the Montreal writer published in this paper a couple of
years back in defence of Caryl Churchill’s play
Seven Jewish Children.
One of his comments stayed with me. He spoke of "how a people’s history
complicates their personal lives.” That statement quietly interrogates
Canadian-style multiculturalism, our surface acceptance of ethnic
difference with the caveat that collective histories remain behind.
Even Nasrallah’s use of the term "people’s” seems bold, for, despite
Canada’s preoccupation with group rights, we display a marked
willingness to favour the ethnic individual over the ethnic group.
Nasrallah’s sentiments made me eager to read his new novel: Would it
carry us beyond the well-meaning banalities that characterize our
discussion of immigrants and refugees? For the most part, he does not
The novel’s title character is Niko Karam, born, like Nasrallah, during
Lebanon’s civil war. We meet him when he is six years old, living with
his parents in their Beirut apartment. His mother, Elise, who writes for
a daily paper, is several months pregnant. His father, Antoine, owns a
As the story begins, however, a bomb has destroyed Antoine’s store.
Secretly, Niko is pleased to have his father home during the days. When
the TV signal is clear, he and his father watch American cartoons. Niko
has been desperately lonely. The school year has again been cancelled,
and bombs and sniper fire make it dangerous to go out and play. He looks
forward to a baby brother who will be a curiosity and a friend.
Niko’s familiar world comes to a brutal end when his mother is fatally
injured in a bombing. After her death, Antoine determines he will take
Niko and abandon his imploding country. The ferry to Cyprus is crammed
with Lebanese fleeing the war. Antoine and Niko travel from Jounieh to
Cyprus, where they visit with Raymond, an old friend who has managed
Over the next while, they sail to Antalya and then to Greece, from
island to island. Antoine regales Niko with tales of the gods and
ancient kings. But harsh reality is impossible to ignore. He seeks
employment and schools. Visas and visitor permits restrict his time. He
struggles to keep Niko clean and fed. No easy task, as few
establishments deign to serve them. Everywhere, Arab refugees are met
with suspicion and disdain.
"Antoine surmises that they have not escaped the war after all, that
perhaps they may never outrun it. The problem of his country, this
ever-complicated struggle to stay together in the face of adversity, has
leached onto their skin and travelled with them. They cannot rid
themselves of it. It stains them.”
Finally, Antoine’s sister-in-law, married and living in Montreal, offers
Niko a temporary home. At the airport in Athens, father and son
tearfully part ways.
Under the umbrella of exile and immigration, Nasrallah examines such
existential concerns as alienation and despair. He considers fate versus
the ability to control one’s destiny; survival of the fittest, and the
notion of luck. The maritime setting – Greece, Turkey and also North
Africa – powerfully, and sometimes playfully, evokes Homer’s
Antoine himself eventually becomes a figure of myth. He is involved in a
shipwreck. Once rescued, he slips into a coma, awakening, eventually,
with no memory. He becomes famous in his community as the man without a
Nasrallah, who has the makings here of an excellent screenplay, can go a
little Hollywood. But Antoine’s amnesia provides more than melodrama;
it must be paralleled with Niko’s inability to let go of the past.
Growing up in Montreal, Niko waits for some news of the father who has
fallen off the face of the earth. Miserable and friendless, without
academic ambition, his only excitement comes from shoplifting.
His aunt and uncle are equally ambivalent about the past and equally
unhappy. The Lebanon they knew no longer exists, and many of their loved
ones are dead. Yet this has not made them warm to one another or to the
role of surrogate parents. Their relationship with Niko is a disaster.
Nasrallah possesses superb powers of description. With a few deft
strokes, he delivers a character’s essence and motivations. His
idiosyncratically scarred landscapes shimmer in exotic hues. This novel
kept fierce hold of my attention until the final pages when, strangely,
out of the blue, it began to waver. We are treated to a couple of
scrupulously correct soliloquies regarding the appropriate place of the
past in the immigrant’s life. Everyone is an individual, the characters
say, obviously speaking Nasrallah’s thoughts; one person’s experience is
not necessarily representative of the group.
But in fact, Nasrallah’s startling achievement is to cause us to
perceive the group differently, to remind us that every crowd of
refugees consists of scores of people like Niko and Antoine.
Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto editor and writer and a frequent contributor to Globe Books.