A review of Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette
It could seem like a relatively minor book, Adania Shibli’s third novel. With its plain blue Fitzcarraldo cover and svelte 112 pages, Minor Detail comes across as unimposing, a novella to be consumed within the space of a couple of hours. While the latter is certainly possible – I did read this in one sitting – its unassuming appearance belies the mesmerising experience that lies beneath. A masterpiece of form and metaphor, Minor Detail is a novel of great importance, a work of literature with the power to have a major and lasting resonance.
Based on a true story, the novel opens in 1949 in the Negev – or Naqab – desert, an arid region of southern Israel that runs along the border with Egypt down to the Gulf of Aqaba. In the midst of the heat and dust we encounter a nameless soldier, whose actions over the next four days are related to us in a third person narrative that is at once reserved and excruciatingly intimate. Fixated on personal hygiene and his task of clearing their newly captured territory of Arabs – it doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see how the two are linked – we see the soldier often in the airless confines of his hut, but also out in the desert as he imprisons, rapes and eventually kills a Bedouin girl captured on a desert patrol.
Shibli presents us with these incidents in fragments of clinical prose, dealing with the most violent episodes in brief, brisk sentences that concentrate on small details – smells, for instance – and leave almost everything else to the reader’s imagination. The only dialogue is the soldier’s own and the narrative point of view sticks closely to him, not wavering for even a second to give the girl her own voice or thoughts. Throughout her torture she is literally as well as figuratively quiet, only occasionally letting out a moan; the loudest voice in this section of the novel belongs to a dog captured along with her, a tormented creature that runs around the camp howling at each new hurt visited upon the girl.
Taking a different tack altogether, we see a bold, almost jarring transition into the second half of the novel, the style of writing switching suddenly from coldly observational to labyrinthine and sinuous. The action also jumps forward, into the present day, while the narration switches to the first person: a nervously expressive woman from Ramallah who has read in the newspaper about the girl’s death twenty-five years to the day before her own birth. This small coincidence – the ‘minor detail’ of the novel’s title – becomes a point of obsession, causing her to set off to visit two war museums in the hopes of uncovering details that will help her to tell the girl’s side of the story. The museums lie in districts she is not permitted to access, and so begins a convoluted and distressing journey away from a city she hasn’t left in years.
Beyond the logistical nightmare involved in travelling what is actually a short distance (borrowing a permissible identity card from a colleague, getting another to rent her a suitable car), the woman’s journey is beset by checkpoints, roadblocks and a sense of utter disorientation, with villages that appear and vanish dependent on the age and publisher of her maps. Aside from occasional figures like security guards and museum wardens, this section of the novel is almost entirely devoid of other people, the landscape our narrator moves through defined by traffic, gated settlements and the desert she eventually comes to. The suddenly flowing sentences of Shibli’s prose – so different from the clipped, journalistic style adopted in the first half of the novel – aid the sense of disorientation created by repeated words, layered motifs and circular journeys, and the ending – though shocking when it comes – has more than a sense of inevitability about it.
Formally, Minor Detail is exquisite – Shibli has carefully controlled her language and structure, placing every word deliberately to build up an atmosphere of almost unbearable suspense in both halves of the book. The fact that this has been conveyed so perfectly in English is down to the extraordinary skill of Elisabeth Jaquette, whose translation takes into account the fact that much of this novel’s substance lies in the physical presence of its language, but also in what is left unsaid – the spaces between the lines. The soldier’s brutal rape of the girl when he thinks no one else is looking is of course the major metaphor, but there is also his repetitive swabbing and gauzing of a festering spider bite that he conceals instead of treating properly, and the wordless howling of the dogs that appear throughout the book, the very embodiment of inexpressible pain.
It is, however, the details of the novel that make it such an absorbing and therefore powerful read. While major details such as names are ignored – giving the story a universal quality that speaks to experiences of abuse and displacement everywhere – Shibli is methodical in the way she sets down the minutiae of each scene: colours, textures, body odours, the ‘delicate cold air hidden underneath’ a bed. Minor Detail is a novel composed of myriad grains of sand, none of them particularly meaningful alone, but all adding up to create a vast swathe of significance.
It is difficult to describe, this novel, but to say I feel haunted by it wouldn’t be at all wrong. The calm Shibli describes as permeating the camp in the first half is present in her writing, lending it a hypnotic quality such that I found myself occasionally shocked by a flash of brutality – or, in the second half, human interaction, much of which is unexpectedly friendly and forgiving. The controlled nature of her prose serves to reveal rather than conceal the seething anger lurking beneath, but is also an indication of a writer who has mastered her craft, able to bend the form of the novel to her will.
To read Minor Detail is to understand what language – and, in this case, good translation – can do. Though it never proclaims to be anything more than a fragment, a minor detail of a large and complex history, Adania Shibli’s novel says more about both mankind and this particular region of the world than many other books three times its size. Fierce, mesmerising and ultimately devastating, this is a powerful literary voice that demands to be heard.