The Secret Maker of the World by Abbas El-Zein reviewed by Tessa Lunney
by Abbas El-Zein
Reviewed by TESSA LUNNEY
How strange, my love. In Baghdad, death and murder fall from the sky, always faceless, known only by the trail of destruction they leave behind. In Dilwa, death and murder have a name and place of abode. (173)
Good short stories contain a life within a moment. The narrative stretches and contracts, extends to novella length then snaps back to a single page. But the central idea, the pivotal moment, holds an entire life, its purpose, its joy and its mystery.
Abbas El-Zein’s The Secret Maker of the World holds just such stories. They sit in the moment of change, a tense yet fluid place where all that used to be might disappear. Sometimes this moment is extended – the week before fleeing war, or the last month before a lover returns. In other stories, this moment is tight and contained – before the narrators reach their destination, their future will be decided.
El-Zein’s stories move from contemporary Australia to medieval Persia, from first person to third, from men to women, from young to old. This eclectic description belies a tight focus on the dialogue between the West and the Middle East, and the various ways and places this dialogue can take place. Sometimes the dialogue is clear – in Natural Justice, a Lebanese man, who now lives in New York, flies to Dubai. Sometimes this is subtle, lying beneath the surface of the text, in how the plight of 12th century cartographer Yaqut Al Hamaoui speaks to the 21st century reader of English. To this reader, it speaks with a bloody lyricism, a poetic turn of phrase that cannot turn away from incessant violence.
The best story in the collection is the last story, the title work The Secret Maker of the World. An interior monologue of a deaf teacher who addresses her absent lover, it is in turn sweet and brutal, funny and elegiac – and as it is written in first person, this applies to the character as well. Alia, bright and bipolar, lives in Baghdad during the most recent war. She yearns for her lover through her diary. The diary is her intermediary, an extended love letter, and our access to the way her inner and outer worlds slip, trip, and slide into each other. Her deafness and diagnosis are no more an impediment to her life than the lack of electricity, a restrictive government, or the war. They are her frame for the world, and within this frame she shows us a place of hidden rhythms and the truth just out of sight:
Isn’t speech always an expression of sanity? Isn’t everything we say and write tinged with hope, mutilated by anticipation?(162)
We see this again as she drives through the Iraqi desert to a small border town:
We drove slowly through the dead streets, scraping together what visibility we could. The windscreen was crisscrossed with fissures – every Baghdadi sitting in his car had his own visual perspective on the fault lines of the city. Slowly, the fog eased and the sun loomed behind the pink clouds, its golden colour faded, a pale imitation of its real self.
…my dread had found its home, free at last to fly into its element, slipping quietly into the vast emptiness it had always craved in the suffocating architecture of its Baghdad prison, as it bounced off concrete ceilings… I did not go to sleep: I nuzzled the underside of my consciousness. (171 – 172)
This is a voice I rarely hear, and as such, this story is necessary. I hear from people like Alia only in the news reports and soundbites, their experiences paraphrased. A personal, particular, subjective experience is either framed within another set of values or disregarded altogether. How Alia thinks about her life is her life. The material facts show little of its purpose, its mystery and its joy.
I felt the same way about the narrator in Respect. How else could I hear the voice of an itinerant Afghan worker, desperate to leave Indonesia and get home for his son’s wedding? His story may be recorded by aid agencies and NGOs, by lawyers and by company men, but if so, it is often stained with propaganda – however hard these organisations strive for objectivity, they have a purpose and mission statement to fulfil. What is the mission statement of a short story? Only, perhaps, to show a life within a moment, to help the reader understand what might happen to the desperate in the middle of the literal and metaphoric jungle:
What’s two years in an office in Sydney? Or was it Melbourne? That’s no match for an Indonesian jungle. You must have fooled them by acting tough. You don’t fool me, Mister.
Fifth gear. Do not give up on me. What’s wrong with fifth gear? Not clutching on. That’s what’s wrong. It must have gone soft like everything else in this Asian Amazon… this terrible noise the gear makes like sheep about to be slaughtered. (62)
Mohammed is not a bright, shining person like Alia, but a man forced the make the most out of almost nothing. The urgency of his journey is conveyed with taut half-sentences, and his invective towards his Australian company boss is the necessary flipside of what can usually be found in the Australian news. But it is his memories of his early life, the necessity of becoming well-travelled in order to live, that provide the story’s core. His current fear as he drives through the wet jungle reminds him of other, deeper, fear:
Fear for the past. The kind of fear that can wrench your guts out at three o’clock in the morning. The kind of fear that only mothers have for their children. I have become a mother for the child I was. (71)
Each character has insights such as these. In His Other Cloak, a vicar in 19th century Newcastle, NSW has been recalled to England. The time period is indicated only by the action of the story and the language the vicar uses to address himself – it could just as easily be early 20th century, just past federation. As Father Drake’s mission in Australia closes, he thinks about the significance of skin:
He slips into his solicitous self, his other cloak, the one closer to his skin, almost inseparable from it. Inseparable all the same. All too inseparable alas!
Sometimes he sees himself as a hierarchy of skins, of garments. The blood in his veins, the swarm of cells in the muscles, the flesh, the self, the cotton shirt, the cassock, the heavier gown. So close together, so deceivingly bound with each other, like a most delicate organ, membrane upon membrane. (81)
This understanding of skin is more than just meditation, but equal parts compulsion and resistance to the idea of self and other, of black and white:
Savvy suddenly rolled over, peeling off his own skin, making a squelching sound. He caught himself wishing his arms were as delicate as Savvy’s, his skin was as black… He censored the thought swiftly in his mind, but it left a trace, a haunting image. (94)
A slippery self can also be seen in a river man on the Yangtze, who gathers the drowned for the families to collect. The second story in the volume, Yellow River, the bereaved Wei Han continues the work of grief:
He is watched over by resentful bluffs on either side, the sky as bare as a desert – remote, turned inward as though afflicted by an abomination of which men have no inkling. He is patient with the drag, glancing occasionally at his catch. He laps at the water softly as if it can feel the tug of the wooden bat on its skin, ripples travelling in consecutive circles, like a short-lived longing for perfection. And the river talks to him and he listens because he knows that, as his father told him a long time ago, if he listens hard enough he can grow ears for the water.
No ache is permanent, no wound too deep to heal. (34-5)
Although this is not the direct address of either Mohammed or Alia, the narrator voice is so close to Wei Han that it is easy to make the narrator’s voice Wei Han’s own, only distanced to third person by sorrow.
These stories must be earned. The opening piece is distant. A story of guerilla violence in Lebanon, it is the gaps and failures of the main character’s devotion that invite the reader in. Yellow River is the second story and also creates distance, and then fills it with the lyrical rhythm of the river. By the time we meet Mohammed in the fourth story, the reader is in the centre of a world where politics, faith, love and hope collide and fight and flee. But not from the reader, and for this, it is a place worth earning. It lets us stand with Alia, and the lyrical intensity of her insight, as she declares herself to be the Secret Maker of the World.
TESSA LUNNEY completed a Doctorate of Creative Arts last year, looking at silence in contemporary Australian war fiction, and has been awarded an Australia Council ArtStart grant for 2014. Her poetry, fiction, and reviews have been published in Southerly, Contrapasso, and Mascara, among others, as well as Best Australian Poems 2014. She lives in Sydney.