Minor Detail

Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, now an International Booker long listee, is a novel of two parts: the first, set in 1949, tells of a young Arab woman captured by Israeli soldiers in the desert; the second, contemporary, section relays the story of another young woman who sets out to investigate the first incident which occurred exactly twenty-five years before her birth. The first part is written in a spare, detached style, largely from the point of view of the Israeli officer who is leading the group of soldiers sent to “cleanse” the area “of any remaining Arabs.” The second is told in the first person, narrated by the young Palestinian woman as she travels across Israel to the scene of the first part. Congratulations are due to translator Elisabeth Jaquette for preserving the distinct style of each part. Together they combine in a fierce condemnation of the treatment of the Palestinians over many years.

Shibli begins by emphasising the inhospitable landscape the Israeli soldiers are faced with:

“They could no longer bear the scorching heat.”

For the officer, the hostility of the desert manifests itself in an insect bite on the first night which grows more painful as the days pass:

“The burning sensation from the bite on his thigh gradually intensified.”

This leads him to crush any insect he sees in his tent, and it is no surprise when the Arab girl, the only survivor when the soldiers open fire on a group of Bedouin, is compared to one:

“…the only sound was the muffled weeping of a girl who had curled up inside her black clothes like a beetle.”

Later, she too will bite him. The officer’s physical, and perhaps moral, discomfort can be seen in the way he frequently washes himself. The girl, too, is cleaned: stripped of her clothes, hosed down, her hair shorn, and her scalp coated with petrol. The cleansing reaches its pinnacle, with echoes of religious ceremony, after the girl has slept in his room:

“He… picked up the bar of soap, crumbled it into very small pieces, between his fingers, and scattered them over the area that had been occupied by the second bed,”

For the officer, the girl is not a human being but a bad smell (“her smell invaded his nose”; “the putrid smell was still there”) though interestingly his repulsion is often expressed in terms of fearing his own space being occupied. A putrid smell, however, also emanates from the infected insect bite on his leg until he can no longer tell which is which, just as the section ends with his hand “still exuding a faint smell of petrol” from touching the girl.

In terms of plot the first and second part are linked as it is what happens to the Arab girl in part one which is investigated by the narrator of part two. However, this attempt to discover more is not really the main point of the second narrative: a crime has been committed but this is not a crime novel. The two parts are also more subtly, and perhaps more importantly, linked by a number of sensory markers. For example, the howling dog, who survives alongside the girl in part one, introduces part two: “a dog on the opposite side of the hill began to howl incessantly” The darkness which frequently invades the officer’s tent also invasive in the second part:

“But then, as soon as darkness spreads into every corner of the house, I’m racked by the dog’s howling again.”

Intrigued by the date of the first event, “which would coincide, exactly a quarter of a century later, with the morning of my birth”, the narrator decides to find out more. Shibli uses this section to demonstrate the conditions for Palestinians living in Israel. The narrator must borrow a friend’s identity card in order to travel the distance she needs to, navigating numerous checkpoints. When she arrives at one of the museums where she hopes to find information, she gives the curator “the first non-Arab name which comes to mind.” She cannot, however, find any of the ‘minor details’ she is looking for:

“I’m here in vain. I haven’t found anything I’ve been searching for.”

It is the subtle links between the two narratives as well as the more dramatic moments which emphasise Shibli’s point that little has changed. However, I must admit that plausibility was stretched in the second section when the narrator takes off on a journey she admits to finding daunting, even terrifying, on the basis of a coincidence. She explains her actions by saying:

“As soon as I see a border, I either race toward it and leap over it, or cross it stealthily with a step.”

This does not feel like the way people think of themselves, and the motivation for her journey is, to my mind, unconvincing. This is a pity as otherwise Minor Detail is a compelling and powerful novel, particularly in the first half, and has a strong chance of making it to the short list.

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10 Responses to “Minor Detail”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    A Fitzcarraldo I haven’t read, Grant, though it sounds as good as the rest of their releases.

  2. Tony Says:

    Hmm. This one was interesting, but a little slight for me. Not sure it’ll make my shortlist…

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s a shame about the aspect that casts a question mark over the credibility towards the end. That aside, it sounds like a very potent read, an effective combination of the personal and the political.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Really nice analysis here Grant, you pick up some subtleties I didn’t quite catch (the comparison of the girl to a beetle for example is a great spot). I was saying at Tony’s that this has grown in memory for me. It didn’t make my end of year and I liked rather than loved it, but it’s stayed with me.

    I think you’re right on the motivation issue of the second section narrator, but I didn’t find it a fatal flaw.

    • 1streading Says:

      I think I’d agree with you – I also liked rather than loved it when I read it, but I could remember much of it when I looked at it again. It wouldn’t surprise me if it made the short list.

      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        Just coming back on this one, the motivation issue has actually stayed with me more than I expected. The second story really only works because the narrator acts incredibly unconvincingly, which is very Ian McEwan (not a compliment from me). I’ll be interested to see if Shibli avoids that in future works.

      • 1streading Says:

        I think that’s true, and why I preferred the first half. The problem with an unconvincing motivation is that it begins to feel contrived.

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