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Review: The Parisian, by Isabella Hammad
Grove, 2019. 551 pp. $27

In 1914, young Midhat Kamal leaves Constantinople, where he’s graduated from a French lycée, for Montpellier, France, to study medicine. The relocation has two objects: to keep Midhat from being conscripted into the Ottoman army, therefore safe from the world war; and to become someone of whom his father can be proud. Father will demand his reckoning, that’s certain, for he’s a wealthy cloth merchant from Nablus, Ottoman Palestine, and a firm believer in traditional, hierarchical values.

Midhat, however, doesn’t quite see his father’s tyranny, despite having suffered from it his entire life. Such thoughts are unthinkable. But once in France, everything is thinkable, even sayable, often doable, and Midhat’s inner romantic flowers like a tree blooming in the desert. He falls in love with Jeanette, the daughter of the professor who offers him room and board, and maybe she returns his feelings. Subsequently, he goes to Paris, where he continues his studies, talks politics with Palestinian nationalists, and becomes a dandy and a seducer.

However, his inevitable return to Nablus shocks him to the core, and as he dutifully tries to reconstruct his life according to the traditions he’s been taught, he mourns his lost freedom, even as he makes the best of his circumstances. That’s what a man must do, he decides, fulfill his role as a proper son and heir to the family business.

Midhat’s inner struggle mirrors that of the Palestinian fight for independence. Hammad shows how his trust in French values gets crushed by colonial realities. But she also portrays the nationalists falling prey to rigid codes of honor that lead to self-destruction, when “flexibility,” as one broader-minded politician remarks, would be saner. So it is that telling one man’s fictional story depicts history.

Nevertheless, this brilliant, impressive novel — a debut, no less — almost sinks in the first hundred and fifty pages. The Montpellier narrative develops slowly, and Midhat’s character seems maddeningly concrete and restrained. To be fair, that’s culturally appropriate, and Hammad does a terrific job portraying her protagonist’s confusion as to language, customs, and behavior, suffering with an obsessive, overdeveloped sense of what people must think of him. Every failure, whether or not it really is a failure, feels like dishonor to Midhat. Still, though you understand why — especially in retrospect, which means those first hundred and fifty pages can feel like wandering — you want the young man to let looser within himself, even if no one else sees it.

But if you read The Parisian, which I highly recommend, don’t sink with the narrative. Tread water, and you’ll be rewarded. Once our hero connects with politics, then returns to Nablus, his character opens. Don’t be put off by the untranslated Arabic, usually honorifics or exclamations, which you don’t need to understand, nor the occasional French phrase. The plot, though simple, wields a very sharp blade, and I defy you to put the novel aside.

Palestinian women march against the British Mandate, Jerusalem, 1930; photographer unknown. The sign urges “no negotiations, no dialogue” until the Mandate ends (courtesy British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Ninety-nine percent of jacket blurbs are fluff and nonsense, but here’s an exception — Zadie Smith astutely remarks that Hammad has written in the tradition of Flaubert and Stendhal. Though I’m not yet ready to place Hammad on that exalted shelf, I see the comparison, visible in the filigree approach to the characters’ interactions as well as the prose, as in this scene with Jeanette in Montpellier:

A strong red blush started at her chest and covered her face. It was Midhat’s turn to look at the garden. He wanted to give her privacy, but he was also waiting for the grin to subside from his own cheeks. Outside, the clouds turned the grass grey, and the tree at the far end was animated with wind. When he looked back, Jeanette was still red, staring at her lap. Neither of them said anything. Something in Midhat’s chest began leaping wildly about as a fly zoomed into the silence and browsed the coffee things. Together they watched the fly inspecting the corner of a sugar cube, and then sitting on the silver rim, rubbing its hands together. He made a decision to look at her again. He found, to his amazement, that he was unable.

Also like the two nineteenth-century masters, Hammad has written a biography of one character standing for a time and place — think of Emma Bovary, Julien Sorel in Red and Black, or Fabrizio del Dongo in The Charterhouse of Parma. (If you don’t know these novels, grab a glass of wine, a comfortable chair, and dig in.) This is the most successful kind of biographical novel, I think, true to history yet unconstrained by having to set down the complete historical record, which doesn’t always squeeze into a fictional frame. Another similarity is that all three protagonists, like Midhat, have been educated in romantic ideals, which leave them unprepared for the cruelties of real life.

But perhaps the most compelling aspect of The Parisian, as with these predecessors, is Hammad’s authority as a storyteller: This is how it happened.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.