‘I could draw it in writing’ [book review]

A review of Planet of Clay by Samar Yazbek, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price

‘A story . . . seems understandable when it’s about a large beast that eats people,’ muses the narrator of Samar Yazbek’s Planet of Clay, a haunting exploration of conflict, trauma and the utter impossibility of using words to convey experiences of horror. In the midst of the Syrian civil war, as the violence escalates and her life spins out of control, coming to resemble anything but the ordered fairy-tale world of princess-eating beasts and the knights who slay them, it is exactly this kind of fantasy to which Rima turns, hoping somehow to make sense of events. This, Yazbek’s first use of fiction to engage with a topic she has previously tackled in non-fiction (The Crossing, A Woman in the Crossfire), is an unusual novel that has a devastating effect on the unsuspecting reader. Ducking and diving, looping back on itself and leaving passages endlessly unfinished, the terrors of reality merge with surrealism in a powerful depiction of what trauma does to the human mind – and what our minds will do to help us survive.

Cover image Planet of Clay

Rima, a young woman from Damascus, is the first-person narrator of Planet of Clay, a novel that reads almost like a stream of consciousness, intimate as the perspective is. Intelligent and perceptive – she can recite large tracts of the Qur’an by heart and has a talent for drawing – Rima decides at a young age not to speak and, accordingly, is treated as a social outcast. Making matters even worse is a strange malady: ‘I was born, and I can’t stop walking,’ she explains. Rima thus spends her life at the end of a rope, tethered to her bedpost or her mother’s wrist, finding solace only in drawing and books, understood by few people but her mother, brother and a school librarian. As Damascus begins to seethe with civil unrest, she finds it hard to comprehend what is happening, but when her mother is arbitrarily shot at an armed checkpoint, war overtakes Rima’s already troubled life and turns it into a nightmare.

Translator Leri Price has pitched the register of her work perfectly to capture Rima’s memorable voice: on the one hand extremely childish, on the other eerily adult, this is the essential element on which the entire novel hinges. When we first encounter her, Rima is tied up in a basement in Ghouta, a besieged suburb of Damascus to which her brother has brought her after rescuing her from the clutches of a military hospital. Launching immediately into her story, which she is writing for an unknown future reader, she proceeds to flit back and forth between the past and the present day, recounting events in a series of terrible vignettes that work like flashes of memory – sometimes cut off abruptly, at other times repeated in half-snatches, occasionally at odds with something else she has explained. Rima only ever narrates life as she sees it, making it sometimes difficult for the reader to work out exactly what is happening. If and when we do, the horror is all the more absolute, such as in descriptions of the chemical attack on Ghouta, after which women’s and children’s bodies litter the courtyard of Rima’s building, their gas-soaked clothes being sprinkled ineffectually with water – just one of the many ‘puzzling things that couldn’t be justified’ in the new world she has entered.

Women and children are at the heart of this novel, with Rima herself straddling both categories. While the men in the story, from her brother to the gunmen who kill her mother, occasionally swoop in to perform some act of valour or violence, it is the women and children who are left to deal with the consequences, often suffering in silence. Rima’s muteness is initially self-imposed, yet there is an abiding sense that later on society and then conflict have prolonged it – having become known as someone who doesn’t speak, she finds it impossible to break her silence, opening her mouth only to scream or recite religious passages. It is a damning comment on the options available to women and children to vocalise their experience, leading Rima to turn to writing and drawing instead.

Here, however, Yazbek seems well aware of the limitations of language, adopting a surrealist and very visual approach that often sees Rima describing her drawings or blending the two disciplines in exceptionally poetic language: ‘I could draw it in writing,’ she offers at one stage. Leri Price’s pictorial choice of words makes some scenes almost lurid, a sensory assault that mirrors the fraught, fragmented experience of war in much the same way as Rima’s choppy narrative leaves the reader scrabbling to fit together the pieces. Some concentration is required, but at the same time it is important – and inescapable – to let go and give ourselves over to this strange, confusing world. The felt experience of this novel, as transported in Rima’s clear, haunting voice, is what lends it its true impact, revealing Yazbek’s message and achieving something she might not have been able to in her journalistic accounts of the Syrian conflict.

While at times it seems as though Rima is deliberately leading us on a merry narrative dance – ‘Are you a bit lost in this story?’ she asks cheekily – moments of extreme vulnerability shine through and we remember that she is little more than a child. She routinely makes reference to her favourite books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Little Prince (both of which, of course, live from surrealism), seeking to find both meaning and escape in the fictional works of childhood. The metaphor on which the title is based – ‘We are toys made out of clay’ – also references youth and play in a marked contrast to what we normally associate with war, while the closing pages of the novel see Rima watching two young boys playing amid the rubble, a scene made even more devastating by this juxtaposition and the reader’s slowly dawning realisation of what is going to happen. The discomfort we may feel from being played with in this sense – this is a novel that manages us, not the other way around – seems to be exactly what Yazbek and her quick-witted narrator are aiming for. The sense of fear and lack of control is at times visceral, lingering long after the end.

Planet of Clay comes to meet us with a face of innocence, but the depths it plumbs are often shocking. The mindless violence of conflict, religious oppression, torture, mental health and the subjugation of women all bubble up to the surface of this intelligently written, poignantly playful novel. Using fairy tale and fantasy to look at war from a new angle, Yazbek and the considered work of her translator Leri Price have created a vivid, unsettling novel that tests the limits of language itself.

Planet of Clay by Samar Yazbek, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price, is published by World Editions in digital and paperback. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a review copy.

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