cover image No One Prayed over Their Graves

No One Prayed over Their Graves

Khaled Khalifa, trans. from the Arabic by Leri Price. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (416p) ISBN 978-0-374-60192-8

National Book Award finalist Khalifa (Death Is Hard Work) returns with a lyrical if laborious story of multicultural Aleppo, Syria, that spans from the 1880s to the 1950s. In 1881, Hanna, a wealthy Christian boy, is orphaned at age eight when a revenge killing claims all the other members of his family in his small village. He is spirited away by a loyal servant and taken in by his Muslim friend Zakariya’s family in Aleppo. In 1907, Hanna and Zakariya, who have both married, are visiting a brothel when a flood wrecks their homes. Hanna loses his wife and son, while Zakariya’s wife survives, but is a mere ghost of her former self, grieving their drowned child. Tormented by guilt, Hanna turns to a life of asceticism. Because of his visions and miracles attributed to him, a messianic cult grows up around him, to his consternation. Through famine, plague, and the Armenian holocaust, which Hanna and Zakariya become aware of after encountering refugees during WWI, the main characters and their descendants persist. Though the ambitious narrative doesn’t always cohere, it’s carried along by Khalifa’s ornate writing, often in the style of Middle Eastern classical poetry and lucidly translated by Price, and by such recurring themes as the supremacy of love over sensual pleasure, power, and religion. Though baggy, there’s beauty on each page. (July)