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Song for the Missing is the second novel by Lebanese-German author Pierre Jarawan. His first, The Storyteller (2019), is an account of Samir, a boy left bereft when his father – one of the storytellers of the title – abandons the family when Samir is only eight years old. The narrative moves back and forth in time between his memories of growing up in Germany and the quest he embarks on as a young man to find his father. It is a quest that leads him back to Lebanon, to the country he had left behind as a child when his parents fled the civil war. Woven through this story of family dislocation and disintegration, Jarawan sketches a history of Lebanon during the war years and describes the emergence of Samir as a storyteller in his own right.
Song for the Missing – lucidly and fluently translated from the German by Elizabeth Lauffer – is written to a broadly similar template. It is the story of Amin who we meet as a young teenager newly arrived back in Beirut from Munich. Born in Lebanon, he had been taken as a baby to Germany by his grandmother following the death of his parents in 1981 and lived there until 1994 when he was fourteen and the civil war drawing to a close. When they return to Lebanon, they settle in Beirut where his grandmother opens a café and resumes painting – a passion forbidden her in her youth; “I wasn’t allowed to paint,” she tells Amin; it “was considered indecent.” Amin meanwhile struggles to ind a place for himself in the city, finding it hard “to create a life in which [he feels] safe.”
In Lebanon, Amin says, “I felt left behind…. Lost in a tangle of unknown alleyways, blindsided by the otherness of these new impressions” and “surrounded by ruins and rubble, evidence of past violence and the forces behind it.” Unmoored in the country to which he belongs but in which he doesn’t quite fit, he is overcome by “waves of yearning for Germany” and although “desperate for explanations,” he feels unable to reach out to his grandmother. He senses that she has come newly alive, that she has turned away from her past to embrace the changed present, and he doesn’t “dare ask…for fear her cheery new self might crack.”
in his disarray, he is thrown a lifeline by Jafar, a one-eyed classmate who help Amin banish his “fear of the ruins” and connect to Beirut and its history. More than that, Jafar is a teller of fantastical tales and stories most of which are invented to help him sell worthless items to gullible bargain hunters. It is Jafar who leads Amin to understand the power of story and encourages his interest in their creation. When Amin subsequently gets a job at the National Museum, a co-worker introduces him to the almost extinct tradition of the “Hawakati” by which street artists earn a living telling stories and it is through this encounter that he discovers his own vocation.
Amin’s story is much the most compelling aspect of the novel. In poignant and direct prose, Jarawan catches the yearning at the heart of his dislocation, his loneliness and struggle to fit in, and his attempt to construct a meaningful national identity. Unfortunately, other characters are less well realised. Narrated primarily in the first person, Jarawan frequently veers from this point of view to grant Amin an omniscience that allows him to describe the thoughts and feelings of others in a way that strains credulity. I repeatedly found myself wondering, how does he, how can he, know them in such detail? More importantly, this omniscience has the effect of flattening these characters out, of homogenising them, and, by interposing Amin between the reader and his other characters, hedistances them, making them inaccessible. Spoken for rather than speaking, these characters never come fully to life.
Just as the plot of The Storyteller radiates beyond the story of Samir and his family to treat much else besides, so the story of Amin and his family is but one strand of many that make up Song for the Missing. Among many other subjects, the book offers summaries of the Lebanese civil war; of the attempt by the one-time militia leaders now turned politicians who run the country to repress all historical memory of that war; of the subjugation of women in Lebanese society; of the history and traditions of the Hawakati; and Amin’s reflections on the role and importance of art, of story-telling, and writing.
Unfortunately, the narrative all but disintegrates under the weight of so much subject matter. Plots and subplots, mysteries and digressions proliferate. Whereas Samir’s search for his father provides a clear narrative path through The Storyteller, there is no such path through Song for the Missing. The difficulty is compounded by the shifting timelines of the novel The narrative slaloms between 1953, 1981, 1994, 2005, and 2011, and the zig-zagging between them is not always clearly sign-posted. The resulting confusion is not helped by Jarawan’s evident love of mystery. He frequently alludes in both novels to fictional detectives such as Philip Marlowe and Sherlock Holmes, paying homage to them in his twisty narratives and chapters with cliffhanger endings. Again, the strong narrative spine of The Storyteller gives the reader a path to follow, but in Song for the Missing the interruptions and digressions mean that many dozens of pages may go by before a thread is picked up and the mystery resolved. All this can be quite hard-going for the reader. I found it difficult to determine even a straightforward chronology of events as I was frequently unsure of when a specific section was set or where it fitted into the larger narrative.
These shortfalls are unfortunate. Song for the Missing is a work of enormous ambition, but it never quite comes together as a unified whole. Each of its several subjects could be developed into a novel in its own right. Had Jarawan narrowed his focus to concentrate on the story of Amin – the most highly developed story line in the present work – it would have made for a more compact, coherent, and compelling work.
KMA Ramsay is writing a novel entitled Exile From A Country Not My Own that moves in time and place between Lebanon in the 1980s during the early civil war and the east coast of England in the first decade of the new millennium.