Reviewed by Emma Garman
With the publication of her debut novel, Touch (translated from the Arabic by Paula Haydar)—told from the point of view of a little girl living at the time of the Sabra and Shatila massacre—Palestinian writer Adania Shibli was hailed as a strikingly original new voice in Arabic literature. Her second novel, We Are All Equally Far From Love, now out in a faultless translation by Paul Starkey, will confirm the young Galilee-born writer’s reputation as a formally brilliant literary artist, whose stylistic innovations and bold feel for language affirm contemporary fiction’s capacity to be reinvented anew.
We Are All Equally Far From Love is divided into eight short sections including two framing chapters and six “measures”—the word conveys both a poetic cadence and the distance separating Shibli’s nameless speakers from meaningful human connection. The voice that introduces the novel belongs to a woman, who has fallen for a man with whom she’s been exchanging letters. They’ve never met, but she discovers his words “were able to touch me and my loneliness, and the kindness that emanated from them did not disappear with time.” Then, abruptly, her correspondent’s communication ceases, leaving her bereft and lovelorn with nothing to do but keep sending letters declaring her feelings, letters that are neither answered nor returned.
From there we meet other lost souls in a narrative linking them dreamily, obscurely, and unknowingly. A teenager toils miserably in a post office, opening people’s mail to inform her collaborator father of their contents and steal whatever takes her fancy, from pieces of jewelry to particularly eloquent love letters. An unhappily married woman of forty-odd years develops a passion for her doctor, whose rejection devastates her. A lonely supermarket worker craving romance agonizes over whether he should talk to a strange woman sitting alone on a bench. A heartbroken man fantasizes about killing the lover who spurned him, but realizes he would rather “have let himself be strangled in her hair the last night she had left it spread on the pillow, before walking beside him on that dry night with its velvety air and telling him as they reached the car: “It’s over.””
Sharply individualized and movingly convincing in their raw tenderness and candor, these varying perspectives are finely wrought to the level of poetry, yet retain the sense of issuing directly from the characters’ anguished subjectivity. “But everyone has left me,” says the speaker in the “End” section, “and now I am here alone, a lonesome shepherdess, who can do nothing to perfection except find pleasure in calmly hating.”
Seamlessly balancing juxtapositions is Shibli’s great gift. We Are All Equally Far From Love is hypnotically visceral in its accrual of mundane details—the color of the sky, the fluttering of flags in the breeze, the endless routines of cooking, eating, breathing, sleeping, sweating—and grippingly cerebral in its meditations on despair, the emotional dimensions of which are shifted, echoed and mirrored through each section. In the hands of a lesser writer, the discontinuous structure, where we spend only a short time immersed in an individual’s internal world before another voice takes over, might lead to a disjointed, unengaging reading experience. But the discipline of Shibli’s aesthetic vision and her tight thematic focus produces, against the odds, a work of stunning coherence that feels cinematic, as though colored by Jim Jarmusch or Wong Kar-wai.
Emphasizing the story’s atmosphere of alienation is Shibli’s decision to include no details about geography and scarcely any about culture: we intuit that the setting is the West Bank, but the political situation manifests only through the ghostly bleakness haunting the pages. It seems glib to wonder if the author’s extirpation of novelistic convention, her dispensing with the accepted architecture of storytelling, figuratively embodies the fractured condition of her homeland. But at the same time, it’s difficult to imagine a work of art as fresh, as untethered by and destabilizing to the status quo, emerging from an author whose worldview hasn’t been imprinted by such existential turbulence.
Not surprisingly, Shibli’s career has also been affected by her nationality in more concrete ways. In his translator’s note, Paul Starkey explains that in January 2010, an excerpt of We Are All Equally Far From Love was used as a “set text” at the British Council in Cairo’s Arabic/English translation workshop, which Shibli herself was unable to attend after being detained at the airport and denied entry to Egypt. Then in April of the same year, Shibli was invited to the Hay Festival in Beirut—she’s one of the “39 Under 39” Arab authors featured in the acclaimed Beirut39 anthology—but, owing to her Israeli passport, was barred from going to Lebanon.
Now in Berlin on a postdoctoral fellowship after completing her PhD in London, Shibli is finishing up her third novel; its research involved, she tantalizingly mentioned in an interview, a visit to a war museum in Tel Aviv, where “the Israeli police and security arrested me thinking I was a spy.” As the dazzling accomplishment of We Are All Equally Far From Love confirms, such perilous adventures will be literature’s gain.
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