cover image The Penguin's Song

The Penguin's Song

Hassan Daoud, trans. from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth. City Lights, $14.95 trade paper (228p) ISBN 978-0-87286-623-2

A young man, treated as an invalid because of his physical deformities, sits at home every day reading and listening to his parents bicker. Daoud's (The House of Mathilde) novel is an elegiac account of loneliness and separation. Set in post-Civil War Beirut, it captures not the immediate horrors of war, but the long emptiness of ruin that follows it. It has been 13 years since the nameless young man and his parents have been pushed out of Beirut's city center, leaving his father's shop and their home behind. Others have acclimated quickly to their new homes, reopening stores and restaurants in entryways and underneath stairwells outside the old city, but this family remains frozen in their apartment at the edge of the desert, mourning the life they have lost. The son is left to study his books and keep his father company while his mother visits with the woman downstairs. The young man fixates on the beautiful young girl who lives in the apartment beneath them. He listens as she walks through the rooms below and watches from his window, but held back by his timidity and the contagious inertia of his parents, he cannot approach her. Daoud captures the essence of the isolation of a broken city without getting weighed down in politics or specific historical events. This is a haunting story inhabited by the ghosts of past lives and demolished buildings, where desires are left unfulfilled and loneliness sweeps through every soul. (Nov.)