A novel about political exile, and the brutal passage of time
I've just reviewed a beautifully written, beautifully translated novel, by the Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser, Land of No Rain. The story, which seems to be quite autobiographical but has none of the self-indulgence that can mar that genre, concerns a middle-aged writer returning to the fictional Arab dictatorship he fled as a young poet and revolutionary. The protagonist, Adham, has lost the sharp convictions of his youth.
Adham's irrelevance is further proven by how innocuous he now seems to the regime he once tried to overthrow. Upon his return to Hamiya, his interrogation by the National Security Agency (its star-shaped headquarters "like a spaceship just landed from another planet," where once "even birds dared not fly overhead") is pro-forma, just a matter, as the polite and diligent officers tell him, of completing his dossier. But where in his file, wonders the narrator, "are the pavements, the cold, life when it became just a lucky coincidence, the skies as low as a wall of grey, the long sleepless nights, the cough, the stubborn hopes, the dancing lights of return?"
Do the mixed emotions of homecoming ever live up to its tense anticipation? Adham finds his homeland almost unrecognizable. It is still un-free, but in new and different ways. His parents have died in his absence. His old flame married and had children. He can only confront his own ghostly younger self, who never left, changed, or aged. This Jolly Corner-like conceit works well, although the proliferation of doubles (multiple characters bear the same name), and the use of the second person singular, in which the narrator addresses himself, can be a bit precious. But then there are disorienting scenes such as this, in which the narrator dematerializes into his former self:
"The man who looked like your teacher at the Upright Generation Secondary School disappeared and was replaced by a solidly built man with an enormous mustache of the kind worn by truck drivers. Your son Badr disappeared. The gold ring disappeared from the ring finger of your left hand. You heard a voice repeating, insistently and annoyingly, a name that had an unsettling resonance: Younis, Younis. You turned to where the voice came from."