Well, after rounding up two excusions I went on before the longlist was announced, it’s now time to set off in earnest on our International Booker Prize longlist journey. Today sees us taking a trip to the Middle East, in what is a split narrative telling two sides of the same story. Whether in the desert or the city, violence (unfortunately) is all around, and I have to warn you, dear reader, that there may be scenes and mentions of sexual violence that could affect you. These are the major events that the book is built around, but what gets it going is something else – a minor detail…
Minor Detail by Adania Shibli
– Fitzcarraldo Editions, translated by Elizabeth Jaquette
(I read a review copy of the Australian edition, released by Text Publishing)
What’s it all about?
Minor Detail is a book that may not take you long to finish (an hour and a half for me), but it’s certain to leave an impression. It’s a short novel in two parts, together providing a glimpse of Palestine past and present, centred on one horrible crime that occurred in 1949. The affair is representative of all the sufferings of the Palestinian people over the past decades, and while the book is rarely explicit, it makes for a powerful and compelling tale all the same.
The first half is set in 1949, with a unit of the victorious Israeli army on patrol in the south, near the new Egyptian border. They’re looking for stray Arabs on a mission to ‘mop up’ possible insurgents, and when they do stumble upon a few Bedouins, they’re not likely to ask any questions:
When his feet landed at the base of the slope, he headed towards the vegetation, penetrating the branches, which quickly yielded to reveal a band of Arabs standing motionless by the spring. His eyes met their wide eyes, and the eyes of the startled camels, which hopped up and trotted a few steps away the moment the dog let out a howl. Then came the sound of heavy gunfire.
p.31 (Text Publishing, 2020)
Once the men are taken care of, the only survivors are the dog and a young woman they find cowering on the ground, and while they are taken back to camp, their fate is unlikely to be a happy one.
The second half of the story moves forward to the present day, where a woman in Ramallah stumbles across an old report of the incident. Choosing to scratch the itch caused by the article, she decides to go out in search of the truth, embarking upon a road trip to see the scene of the crime for herself. As she drives off to uncover the mystery, she shows us how things have changed (or not) over more than half a century.
The story of the crime itself is narrated by one of the perpetrators, an Israeli army officer leading the mission in the desert. There’s a clinical approach to his days, such as the methodical step-by-step description of how he washes himself, and the fact that he’s a man in control of himself makes what happens even more disturbing. There’s another ‘minor detail’ here, the insect bite the soldier receives in the first pages. It eventually becomes infected, festering and weakening him, and it acts as a metaphor for the evil that seeps into him, a pain that makes him snap. From the moment the woman enters the camp, her fate is obvious, but just how it happens is the surprise.
The second half is a very different story, but just as effective. The woman in Ramallah is a garrulous soul, who happily chatters on and admits several what appear to be slightly autistic traits, particularly her inability to tell what to do in everyday situations. It’s here that we learn what the minor detail of the title actually is, namely the fact that the crime occurred exactly twenty-five years before the narrator was born. It’s this coincidence that she can’t escape from, and it acts as the catalyst for a voyage of discovery.
What she sees is likely to be an eye-opener for the reader as she passes through zones and border checkpoints, narrowly escaping bombs and raids. In the past, she often travelled these roads, but times have changed:
The road I’d been familiar with until a few years ago was narrow and winding, while this one is quite wide and straight. Walls five metres high have been erected on either side, and behind them are many new buildings clustered in settlements that hadn’t existed before or were hardly visible, while most of the Palestinian villages that used to be here have disappeared. I scan the area with eyes wide open, searching for any trace of these villages and their houses, which were freely scattered like rocks on the hills, and were connected by narrow, meandering roads that slowed at the curves. But it’s in vain. None of them can be seen anymore. (p.111)
On her passenger seat, she has old maps with names of Arab villages that no longer exist. In many ways this is a journey into the past, and we wonder what she’ll find when she gets there.
The two rather different stories of Minor Detail are intricately linked and come together to create an absorbing tale, showing how the country has been altered, but also how some things never change. One of the notable features of the novel is the use of language in the two halves, contrasting the matter-of-fact prose of the officer with the woman’s constant stream of words. There’s also the use of certain images to link the two parts, such as a hose the woman sees lying on the ground (instantly taking us back to a scene in the first half), as well as the dogs that pervade the second half of the book, a reminder of the witness of the crime detailed earlier. It’s all rather surreal at times, and the sense of detachment only serves to make the story hit home harder when it takes the occasional turn for the worse.
This minor detail is just one ‘little’ crime in a bloody century, but Shibli brings it back to our attention, stressing its importance. In this way, she shows that the suffering of a people is made up of countless ‘minor details’. As tempting as it is to bury the past, she seems to suggest that only by confronting it can we move on, even if in this particular region of the world a peaceful solution seems further off than ever.
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I’m on the fence with this one. It’s obviously early days, and there’s a lot to like about the book, but I did think it was a little thin. Finishing a novel in less time than it takes to watch a football match can be a good thing, of course, but I did feel that a little more substance was required. Let’s see if my mind changes once I read a few more longlisters.
Will it make the shortlist?
I’d say it has a very good chance. This was one of the most hyped contenders prior to the longlist announcement, and it has a lot of fans. Let’s also not forget that Fitzcarraldo Editions always seem to be there or thereabouts when it comes to the shortlist stage, and Minor Detail is definitely a book that would look good as a winner.
Leaving the Middle East behind, we set the GPS for Denmark, but something appears to have gone horribly wrong. Instead, we’ve found ourselves on a ship in the middle of space, orbiting a strange planet. I think we might need to complain about this, and, luckily enough, there’s someone here who’s willing to listen. Let’s blow off some steam and hope we make it back safely – we’ve got a longlist to finish off here…