WHAT HELL IS NOT
By Alessandro D’Avenia
99 NIGHTS IN LOGAR
By Jamil Jan Kochai
Alessandro D’Avenia is a best-selling author in his native Italy and around the world. He has many fans and gives TED Talks, in which he speaks just as he writes. In a publishing world that rewards E. L. James and Dan Brown with millions in sales while many devotees of craft and language labor in poverty, D’Avenia is a star. His third novel, “What Hell Is Not,” based on a true story and translated by Jeremy Parzen, follows Federico, a bookish teenager from Palermo who, just before a summer of study in England, is recruited by his teacher, the kind Don Pino, to mentor children in a poor neighborhood plagued by Mafia violence. Federico wants to read, to write, to fall in love. Don Pino offers wisdom, hope and goodness.
Any potential for a profound narrative in this promising setup is thwarted by the writing, which is bloated and indulgent. The book’s dreamy musings and vague scenes are laden with metaphors so mixed it can require several reads just to take in their true awfulness. Federico pines for a girl: “She’s the one who rummages through his heart, in the tangle where dreams grow. Things bathed in too much light cast the same amount of shadow. Every light has its grieving.” A beat later: “He covers his acerbic face with his hands, as if he could feel his visage with his fingers. He resembles a sailor on the pier as he waits for a contract following mandatory shore leave. … He allows light, wind and salt to reshape his flesh and thoughts.”
It is difficult to know whom to blame, author or translator, for the manic descriptions, desperate reflections and mangled aphorisms. Who thought “trots along like a sleepwalker” (try to picture that) or “a bullet is instant destiny” should be written down in any language? But Parzen didn’t create this frightful simile: “Life seems like those textbook equations whose solutions are found in the lower right hand of the page, framed by parentheses. But he never gets the procedure right. And it worries him that two minuses make a plus and a minus and a plus a minus.”
The novel’s images are contorted, its metaphors removed from the physical world. “Curtains flap like snakes against the heat-besieged windows.” Humanity “explodes like a seed.” (Do snakes flap, the reader asks, or seeds explode?) Every dead thing is compared to fish, every dark or mysterious thing to Arabs. As a woman is raped, “her eyes are like those of a fish dumped out onto the shore,” and D’Avenia ends the chapter thus, as if to preen: “A piece of meat in a piece of meat can wound just as much.” Translation is a tricky business, but did this grotesque analogy sound O.K. in Italian?
D’Avenia’s authorial style may be “more is more,” but even when no words are needed, he still offers a dozen: “The Hunter doesn’t utter a word. Attitude is all someone with power needs and words only get in the way unless they are absolutely necessary.” Never have I read a more unintentionally ironic sentence.
D’Avenia’s relationship to simile is misguided and cynical: used to obfuscate, not clarify. Federico, styled as a poet, claims to love “the metaphor that dislocates reality.” But the purpose of rhetoric isn’t to dislodge; it is to ground. Kenneth Burke famously wrote that metaphor “brings out the thisness of a that, or the thatness of a this,” to make the intangible tangible. Nothing in this novel is tangible. Page after page, the reader senses that something has gone terribly wrong here. Somewhere between the writing, editing and translation the audience has been dismissed, and all beauty murdered like poor Don Pino.
The question of audience is answered more deliberately by Jamil Jan Kochai, an Iowa M.F.A. candidate whose debut novel, “99 Nights in Logar,” is crafted with care, respect and a hard-earned and profound understanding of its readership. It is funny, razor-sharp and full of juicy tales that feel urgent and illicit, turning the reader into a lucky, trilingual fly on the wall in a family loaded with secrets and prone to acquiring more. The narrator, 12-year-old Marwand, is returning from America with his brothers and parents to his family’s compound in Logar province in eastern Afghanistan, where over the course of 99 days he reconnects with a house full of saucy and callused aunts and uncles, crashes a wedding in a stolen burqa, has his finger bitten off and his Coolpix stolen, and gets lost in a deathly maze of compounds that may or may not be a hallucination.
The novel opens with four boys running away from their distracted parents to search for a rabid old dog from whom Marwand seeks forgiveness for tortures past. But in 2005, Afghanistan is wild, full of killers: “The psychopathic white boys, the ravenous bandits, the Ts and the gunmen and the drug runners, the kidney kidnappers, the robots in the sky.” The ensuing adventure is witty and engaging, somewhat allegorical, thrumming with the histories of foreign wars and with memories of lives lost and childhoods cut short. When Marwand’s father is tempted to stay in the States, his wife reminds him of their own culpability, living and working there. “I don’t support the invaders,” he says, thinking of the excesses of American bases, the heroin, the chai boys. And yet, the family’s return to America is inevitable; this is only a single nostalgic summer spent marrying off daughters, sharing platters of rice and remembering.
The novel is constructed out of spoken stories within stories, each more embellished than the last (“It’s O.K. to change a story a little if you can make it better”), shared over evening chai, or while waiting for help on the roadside, or watching explosions on a distant mountain. One character narrates until he can’t continue, Marwand tells us, and at “the point in the story I most wanted to hear, someone else took a sip of his chai and began his own story, and so on and so forth, until everyone was given a say and not a single story was actually finished.” When Marwand argues to his father that American TV has tales just as good as the ones told in Logar, his father says, “But not our stories.”
And that is precisely the point. While the novel is written in English, it deprioritizes the Western reader. This is its most interesting accomplishment: It ignores the Western gaze, despite Kochai’s firm grasp of its prose standards. The author has created a singular, resonant voice, an American teenager raised by Old World Afghan storytellers. He mixes Farsi and English and Pashto without the expectation that any one reader (except another Marwand) will understand all of it. There is an exoticism in the technique of peppering foreign words into English texts, then promptly translating them — a repetition much like breaking the fourth wall. But here are Farsi words untranslated for the reader, used only where Marwand would naturally speak in that tongue.
Consider this sentence: “Although an imam had made the nikkah between Khaista and Atal official, giving them the holy right to” — insert sexual expletive — “as much as they pleased, poor Khaista was beset by her six idiot brothers, whose ghairat revealed itself only in times of ease or during opportunities for cruelty.” The American reader doesn’t need an interpreter in order to relish this voice, but an Afghan-American will enjoy it many times more. “Wallah,” the band of cousins swear to one another, again and again — and that word evokes many of our childhoods. The final story, a sacred family tale about the death of a beloved uncle, a story foreshadowed throughout, is written entirely in Pashto script. This bold choice doesn’t take away from the present narrative any more than do Scheherazade’s elisions from her story, but the tale does enrich the novel for those who can read it — here is a secret reserved for some. Unlike the token apple-polishing uncle, Kochai doesn’t offer anything to the Americans for cheap.
How refreshing that Kochai isn’t posturing for the West, though he knows just how to entrance its reader. His images are precise, in harmony with the physical world. He doesn’t dabble in Eastern melodrama unless he’s satirizing. “This one time, at a wedding, Ruhollah Maamaa was having trouble with an AK during a machine-gun celebration”: Such a sentence can only end riotously for a family whose rooster is named George Bush.
Kochai has created an exciting and true voice, a young American proudly telling stories of his Afghan grandparents, of his cousins and brothers, without the need for Western approval. He doesn’t alter a single word for their comfort, describing, for example, “hair so deeply brown it was almost blond,” because, to us, brown is lighter than average. In that way, he respects his global audience all the more, while still claiming Afghan stories for Afghans.
The success and failure of Kochai’s and D’Avenia’s novels, respectively, both published for Western readers, depend on their regard for that audience. One novel doesn’t bother with any reader at all, while the other knowingly, respectfully looks another way.
Dina Nayeri is the author, most recently, of “Refuge.” Her next book, “The Ungrateful Refugee,” will be published this year.
WHAT HELL IS NOT
By Alessandro D’Avenia
Translated by Jeremy Parzen
356 pp. Oneworld. $24.95.
99 NIGHTS IN LOGAR
By Jamil Jan Kochai
279 pp. Viking. $25.
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