Millions of people risk life and limb to escape their countries through the sea and other means as a global refugee crisis unfolds. The 2019 winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Hoda Barakat’s “Voices of the Lost” (Yale University Press, 2021), recently translated from Arabic into English by Marilyn Booth, paints a complex picture of displacement, war, and hope in the bleakest moments among immigrants and refugees.
The novel opens in epistolary form, driven by a series of six letters. None of the writers are named, nor are their home countries or asylum countries identified. The letters address mothers, fathers, brothers, and lost lovers — though none ever reach their intended recipient. Instead, they fall into the hands of strangers in unlikely places, found in a trash can or an airplane seat. These strangers are then inspired to pen letters of their own. One letter details a woman’s words to a lover she hasn’t seen in decades as she writes her letter from the hotel of an ambiguous European country. Another delves into the thoughts of a man whose country’s secret police tortured him, and who by strange circumstance becomes a torturer himself before fleeing. In the words of Rumaan Alam in 4Columns, “It’s horrific, absurd, yet somehow quite right; the book’s gradual shift from the poetic to the violence is more plausible than I wanted it to be. Barakat is interested in the universals—violence, sex, family. The letter is, for her, not just a mechanism for telling a story, but a reminder that most stories remain unknown.”
The latter half of “Voices of the Lost” offers intriguing new perspectives. Rather than continue the epistolary form, the second section provides “counterpoint” monologues from either the intended recipients or acquaintances of the writers in the first section. The third and final section of the novel follows the perspective of a postman who has not left his country but clings to hope for better times. He collects lost letters to deliver them to their recipients in the future.
In an interview with Yale University Press, Barakat said, “I hope my work encourages readers to pay attention to those who often go unseen and unnoticed. We may see pictures on the news or hear their stories from a distance. Still, I want my work to bring the lives of refugees and immigrants into sharp focus—as individuals with incredibly unique stories and circumstances.”
Breaking out of the mold of traditional narrative, “Voices of the Lost” offers a good look for future Arabic novels. In an interview with Ibtisam Azem of Al Araby Al Jadeed, Barakat comments, “I am convinced the Arabic novel has reached excellent new levels since it left behind the social role — assigned to the writer — to define moral values and reveal facts...the Arabic novel has finally come out of the folklore genre.” According to her, writers are moving beyond their narrow limits, and while previously the “novel did not always serve itself, but other issues, today the Arabic novel seems to have searched for itself.”
“Voices of the Lost” did not initially begin in epistolary form but was written as one man’s internal monologue. However, Barakat admitted, “I felt I did not understand the character and that it was different, so I rewrote it as a letter that he writes while he is outside his country and cannot return to it.” The global images of Syrians, Libyans, Tunisians, and others trying to emigrate after the outbreak and failure of the Arab Spring largely influenced the perspective, she told Azem.
Barakat is conscious of the way language alters her literary voice. “I make sure that I write in Arabic. The equation is straightforward; it is my love of the Arabic language and relationship to it and that these novels I write can only be written in Arabic. I’ve written some texts in French — monodramas, lectures, studies, articles — but this is not the same as writing.”
She continues, “The writer is his language. When I read the translation of my novels into French — and here I can judge the translation, which I cannot do with translations into other languages — I feel it is “bad” in that I do not find myself, my music, nor my repetition. I feel as if I am being transferred from one field to another, and not just from one language to another, but one meaning to another.” One wonders if the English release of “Voices of the Lost” upholds the literary impact of its Arabic original.
Copyright © 2021 by Al Jadid