A review by Selma Dabbagh at The Electronic Intifada
A notice in LitHub’s “10 Books You Should Read This May”
Nothing moved except the mirage. Vast stretches of barren hills rose in layers up to the sky, trembling silently under the heft of the mirage, while the harsh afternoon sunlight blurred the outlines of the pale yellow ridges. Aside from these, nothing at all, just a great expanse of the arid Negev desert, over which crouched the intense August heat. The only details that could be discerned were a faint winding border which aimlessly meandered across these ridges, and the slender shadows of dry, thorny burnet and stones dotting the ground.
One is from the opening of the novella, at Fitzcarraldo:
As a translator, I was very keen to work on a book that was so tightly crafted, because it required me to dedicate the same effort as a translator, and pay even closer attention to what Adania was doing and how. Adania is an impressive prose stylist, and her precision is astounding, though this of course brings another level of difficulty to the translation process. Jaquette said of Minor Detail, over email: “I was immediately taken by the novel upon reading it. The subject matter certainly does have its difficult aspects, but there’s a sense of compulsion from each narrator (albeit different for each one) that I think also brings great momentum to the storytelling.”
Later, she added: “Silence is what protects them. So they have to be silent.”
In an interview with ArabLit Quarterly last year, Shibli said, slightly tongue in cheek: “Dialogue is always a fight. And if they speak, they’re really going to be horrible to each other.” I don’t want dialogue in a story, ever, I want people to be silent.
Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail is a suffocating, pressurized novella that one might well read with their muscles tensed for all 107 pages: Pub Day: Adania Shibli’s ‘Minor Detail,’ Tr.
He walked over to the trunk, removed the bottle of ointment and a new bandage, and carried these with him to the bed, where he sat down on the edge and began removing the bandage from his thigh. He dropped the ointment and bandage next to him on the bed and walked over to the lantern, with an effort that was reflected on his face, and extinguished it. But before he could clean the bite and apply some ointment to it, the cramps in his body grew so intense that he could no longer move.
As in Shibli’s other works, there are many sounds — particularly, in Minor Detail, the howling of dogs — but very little communicative dialogue. Indeed, everyone in the book seems suffocatingly locked into themselves, in one way or another. There is one moderately long exchange, in the museum, but it feels more like a written speech than any form of communication; the two characters largely talk past each other.
There are two excerpts from the novella online.
Coetzee calls her; a young woman in our times, with no apparent skill for detective work, who insists on bumbling around, trying to find out what happened to the Bedouin woman who was held against her will, raped, and eventually killed by the officer and his men in the first section. The second is the story of a Palestinian “amateur sleuth,” as J.M. The officer has been stung by a scorpion, but somehow, even as his body is riven with pain, refuses to acknowledge it. The first the story of an Israeli officer and group of soldiers in the Negev Desert in 1949, who come across a group of Bedouin, shoot most of them, and take the surviving young woman back to their camp. This book unfolds in two parts.
Jaquette noted that, on the surface, “the two parts of the book operate completely independently of each other: they’re set decades apart, and they each follow a different central character, neither of whom is aware of the other in any personal way.” Yet she found them linked through all sorts of different echoes:
But, as each echo amplifies the next, the overall effect is incredible. But perhaps my greatest challenge as a translator was recreating what links those two separate parts of the novel: the echos between them. For example, I might have translated ‘lather’ in one instance, and ‘soap suds’ in another, but to play by the rules of the novel, I had to pick one word that would work equally well in both instances. As a translator, it was sometimes challenging to keep track of all these echoes, and to find one single word that would work in multiple instances. The way Adania lays these two narratives over one another is so powerful; history is right there, yet inaccessible. In the end, I think these echoes create a nearly-invisible architecture beneath the book, more felt that seen. Tone is so essential to the effect that Adania creates in this novel, and there was certainly a challenge in recreating two very different tones for two different characters in English. These appear in subtle ways: a spider, a dog barking, a shiver.
Here, as the officer struggles to conduct himself, barely acknowledging his pain, even to himself: The second appeared at The Arts Desk; it’s from slightly later in the first section.
Minor Detail — in an impressive, masterful translation by Elisabeth Jaquette — is out today in the UK and is coming May 26 in the US. It’s Shibli’s third book-length work, following Touch, which was translated by Paula Haydar, and We Are All Equally Far from Love, translated by Paul Starkey.