Time has a wonderfully strange quality in “The Parisian,” the debut novel by British-Palestinian writer Isabella Hammad. When the book opens, the main character, on a boat from Alexandria to Marseille, finds that the sound of his pocket watch “lulled him to sleep.” Then, looking at the watch in the middle of the night, he “began to see in those twitching hands the spasms of something monstrous.” Lulling and spasming, a comfort and a monster — that’s the uncanny nature of time in Hammad’s superb historical saga.
“The Parisian” weaves together two stories: the life of Midhat Kamal, a Palestine-born man who journeys to France in 1914 to study medicine and soon thereafter returns to his familial home in Nablus; and the life of Palestine from the late 1910s to the 1930s, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and during the years of struggle against British control and increasing Jewish immigration. (Midhat is based in part on Hammad’s great-grandfather.)
We move through these stories in fits and starts, wandering from Montpellier to Cairo to Jerusalem, dilating upon a week’s worth of events for chapters before condensing years into a page. Plotlines slowly unfold — Midhat’s early love for the French daughter of his host in Montpellier; his later courtship of a young Palestinian woman; the Palestinian general strike — and then unexpectedly, irrevocably shift. Nothing feels rushed, until everything does.
At one point, after Midhat’s first love has failed, after his prospective medical career stalls, after the dreams of an independent Palestine have given way to the reality of the British mandate, “It occurred to Midhat that a tragic story told quickly might contract easily into a comedy.” Hammad tells her tragic stories slowly, over more than 500 pages, making us feel what it’s like to live not outside or above but within history. Time drifts; life drifts. So too does “The Parisian.”
Sprawling novels often are described as Victorian, but the 19th-century credentials of “The Parisian” are legitimate. The setup is classic bildungsroman: Young man leaves home, heading “straight to the heart of modernity” that is France; young man finds love and disappointment — and, through this, builds a self; young man tempers his dreams, finds work, gets married. Beyond this overarching structure, frequent motors of Victorian drama — clandestine wills; hidden letters; frustrated marriage plots — fire throughout. Midhat even reads Flaubert shortly after getting married. (We’re not told the title. I hope it wasn’t “Madame Bovary”; I suspect it was “Sentimental Education” — a novel that, like Hammad’s, charts the relationship between selfhood and the state.)
The critic James Wood has located Flaubert’s genius in all that he chose not to include: “the great descriptions . . . are surrounded by the ghost of avoidance, by everything that was rejected to produce this style, by the careful hiatus, by the intelligent starvation.” Hammad exhibits less intelligent starvation than skillful inclusion. If anything her novel can at times seem overstuffed with secondary characters, especially in its second half. Yet her sentences are elegantly controlled, as when Midhat returns to Nablus: “Indoors, he smelled onion and sumac, and beyond that a specific odour like cold plaster and mould, which plucked at a part of his memory grown numb with inattention. A whole section of his brain stirred to life. The shape of the kitchen window, the one cracked pane, that silver dish . . . The objects erupted with pastness.”
This measured prose describes an endlessly shifting world. Politically, Hammad’s characters don’t know what they want. Or they do know, but it shifts constantly: from hoping for “pan-Syrian unity” to demanding “Palestinian independence”; from embracing peaceful protest to launching armed resistance. Midhat’s very self refuses categorization, as he feels compelled to assume different identities: In France, he’s “the Arab,” a figure of the exotic who is devastatingly “awakened to his own otherness”; in Nablus, he’s “the Parisian,” a figure of the cosmopolitan in a time marked by nationalist fervor. Wherever he is, “he was always marked by his difference.”
This messiness of identity and ideology is how history actually feels. The 1920 Nebi Musa riots; the Graf Zeppelin displaying a German flag over Jerusalem in 1931: These events were, if you experienced them firsthand, not the stuff of textbooks but the stuff of life. We “cannot trace the endless stream of cause and effect” when we’re in the middle; it’s only in retrospect that things map neatly.
At one point, Midhat’s French host remarks, “I was thinking today about consistency of character. Is that something you believe in, consistency?” Whatever Hammad’s characters believe in, they live in a world of inconsistency, one where characters change, allegiances shift, and cause and effect aren’t yet clear. That is to say, they live in the world of history, and “The Parisian” makes this history, and its actors, live once again.
By Isabella Hammad
Grove, 566 pp., $27
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Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’