A version of this review was published at the Independent.
“The Silence and the Roar” by Syrian novelist and screenwriter Nihad Sirees was written in 2004, long before the roar of revolutionary crowds, and the countervailing roar of gunfire and warplanes, filled Syrian skies.
The pre-revolutionary roar of the title is that of the (capitalised) Leader speaking, and of the crowd celebrating the Leader speaking, and of those being beaten because they aren’t celebrating loudly enough; a roar relentlessly repeated by radios and televisions throughout the city, accompanying the protagonist almost everywhere he goes.
Counterposed to the roar there are two forms of silence: of imprisonment and of the grave. The first holds an ironic allure, for “the most beautiful thing in the entire universe is the silence that allows us to hear soft and distant sounds.”
The narrator is Fathi Sheen, a writer fallen out of favour with the regime, silenced only to the extent that he doesn’t write any more. He’s very pleasant company, amusing and straightforward, his digressions into Aristotle and Hannah Arendt notwithstanding. Over the course of a day Fathi struggles against the flow of celebrant crowds and regime thugs to visit first his mother and then his lover. He’s been content thus far to continue not to write in return for being left alone, but it becomes clear as the hours pass that the Leader’s friends plan to drive a different sort of bargain. The novella is in part a parable of the artist surviving under dictatorship. How does he make space for creation between silent and roaring states of mind? How does he avoid the regime’s Faustian temptations? More generally, how should one resist?
One answer for Fathi and his lover Lama, as for Winston Smith and his Julia, is through sex, which they find to be “a form of speech, indeed, a form of shouting in the face of the silence.”
Another is by laughter. Fathi’s mother and lover both survive the world by ridiculing it, and Fathi too, in his amused insouciance under bullying and threats, meets the challenge by means of absurd comedy. His context is often situationally absurd – for instance he is refused access to the security building where he must reclaim his confiscated ID card, because he doesn’t have his ID card.
A state built around the amplified personality of the Leader is also absurd in the sense of surreal, ‘unreasonable’ in a literal sense. Surrealism is the term used to name the situation, both by Fathi (in conversation with an anguished doctor) and by Nihad Sirees in his afterword. The tragicomic ending is fittingly in dream shape, and bears great but indirect symbolic weight.
The city is not quite Damascus. The Leader too is generalised, not quite Bashaar al-Assad or his father Hafez; there’s more bluster and colour to him than that. Occasionally his outsized decadence is reminiscent of Garcia Marquez’s autumnal patriarch, as when he strolls through his palace peering into the mirror of TV screens, one in each room, each replaying the engineered roar.
This is a small dystopian treasure of Gogolian texture, nightmarish but also light, self-referential but never pretentious. Eery, banal, yet bearing the cold imprint of reality, Sirees’s vision of tyranny is distinctive enough to be ranked with Orwell, Huxley, or Marquez’s.
The superlative translation is by Max Weiss.