cover image Passage of Tears

Passage of Tears

Abdourahman A. Waberi, trans. from the French by David and Nicole Ball. Seagull (Univ. of Chicago, dist.), $21 (248p) ISBN 978-0-85742-021-3

The eponymous passage (“the strait that separates the Arabian peninsula from Africa”) lies near Djibouti, the former homeland of Djibril, a 29-year-old man returned, post-9/11, to make “sure the country is secure, the situation stable, and the terrorists under control.” In the employ of an “economic intelligence company,” Djibril is determined “not to feast at the table of nostalgia.” But as he navigates a country on the verge of transformation into a “showpiece,” he increasingly loses himself in recollection, most often of his twin brother Djamal, who Djibril hasn’t seen in 15 years. The records Djibril keeps, his new observations, and his old memories are interspersed with letters from an unknown prisoner who seems to observe Djibril’s every move. These menacing missives—filled with encomiums to Allah, condemnations of Djibouti’s government, and accusations against Djibril—mysteriously give way to excerpts from a book about the life of German writer Walter Benjamin. As the two strands of narrative converge, Waberi (In the United States of Africa) illustrates how “shadow reveals light, silence reveals words, an instant reveals history.” An inventive and compelling experiment, the novel never loses sight of human feeling even as it grapples with the heaviest of socioglobal matters. (Dec.)