Antoon’s novel is written as the transcription of a manuscript found in a cabinet in a prison in Baghdad. The manuscript’s author is a young Chaldean university student in love with a wealthy young woman, but more in love with poetry and the dream of freedom of expression. He writes with bitter irony at times, an irony that is echoed by the “editor’s” attempts to make sense of his critiques of the regime. For example, the author writes National Hemorrhage lecture , which is noted as *Heritage? in the footnotes. The author is imprisoned near the beginning of the manuscript and the chronological narrative begins to break down as he is dehumanized within the narrative through verbal, physical and sexual abuse. He then begins to flash back to the past at varying rates of speed and to record hallucinations that at time seem that they might be memories. The reader becomes as uncertain what is reality and what is imagination as the author.
It’s a small novel–less than 100 pages–but so powerful and beautifully written. It brings you into the claustrophobic world in which words do not communicate reality, but can reshape it in a heartbeat. The author is given paper by a guard in the prison, who may be his savior, but who, in the end, is the author of the report on the manuscript. Perhaps he was not able to save the man in body, but, through his words, preserved some of his spirit.
There is one fantastic passage about writing that I read over and over.
“Why write? Why should I not write? To write or not to write. Am I here because someone wrote of me? I’ll gouge the eye of anyone who dares try to read me!
They wrote me in here, or I wrote myself here, and I will write my pain out.”
This book is so powerful, particularly given our current involvement in Iraq, but also beyond politics. It’s so powerful I want to leave copies on benches and in mailboxes. It should become part of the canon.