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Najwa Barakat: مستر نون (Mister N)

Characters with one word names are not unknown in literature I have a list of books with one letter titles or characters. the most famous is, of course, Joseph K from Kafka’s Der Prozess (The Trial). The one letter gives the character an air of mystery, as though he is perhaps hiding something. Our Mr. N may have a real name, in that we learn his grandfather was called Nadeem but we do not know whether that name passed to his grandson. We do know that it is unusual and another character comments on it. We also know that it is not the name he used to have.

Our Mr N lives in Beirut, where he has always lived. He is a failed writer, in that he tries to write but, as we shall see, struggles with his writing, language and his life.

He used to live in a nice apartment with his family – father, a doctor, mother, Thurayya and older brother Sa’id, a very successful businessman. He does not call Thurayya mother even though she is his biological mother as she was not, in his opinion a good mother (cruel and unfeeling as a rock). She much prefers her older son Sa’id. Initially, as he refers to her only as Thurayya, we are not even aware that she is his mother. Indeed, he states only that she is the mother of Sa’id. The truth is, I never once called her mother, because I was no son to her, and she no mother to me.. He spends much time berating her and listing the many times she mistreated him while favouring Sa’id.

However, for reasons even he is not clear about, he moved out and now lives in a hotel. Presumably, though he does not say so, he moved out, as Sa’id had moved on and their father had died (in front of N), leaving him alone with his hated mother (and her alone with her despised son). We later find out that it is all a bit more complicated than we thought and than he is telling us.

In the hotel he is looked after by the manager, Andrew, and Andrew’s assistant Miss Zahra, who brings him food and pencils. However, things are not entirely smooth there. The next door neighbour seems to spend much time loudly abusing his wife, who rarely defends herself, while the (female) neighbour opposite keeps asking him in (he declines). He does occasionally visit his mother (very occasionally) and also gets occasional visits from Sa’id. He also never goes out. He no longer has any friends. Relationships with other human beings were nonexistent. His basic, daily social interactions amounted to nothing.

He had had relationships with the opposite sex, including in particular, Neda, a relationship that lasted seven years till she finally told him I can no longer bear you. He later meets a Nepali prostitute, Shaygha, and they become an item but when he decides to rescue her from her life of prostitution, there are problems with her pimp.

Much of the time he spends thinking about the horrors of his childhood and struggling with his writing. Mr. N decided that he hated writing. Maybe the time would come when he was ready to pick up his pencil again, but that time was slow in coming. He would give up all thought of being a writer, at least for a while. It is language he cannot cope with – In the end, he was certain that speech itself had lost its shape. It had deteriorated, worn out, to melt over his hands like candle wax.

It is finally his toilet that drives him out. He was used to and preferred an Arab style toilet but he now has a European style one. The water tank is not working properly and he needs a spare part to fix it. Getting a spare part or a plumber where he lives is nigh on impossible but a neighbour advises him that if he goes to Bourj Hammoud, he will definitely find one. His Bloomian journey through Beirut is masterfully described as he relives the city he has forgotten about and sees how it has changed, with its heady mixture of cultures, nationalities and languages. He sees various religious shrines and various styles of architecture. He is propositioned by a prostitute.

He finally ends up in an Internet café where, to his horror, he sees Luqman. During the civil war, Luqman had been a thug, randomly killing people. Mr. N was sure he had been killed at the end of the war. More importantly, Luqman did not exist. He was a character in one of Mr. N’s novels. Indeed we learn that Mr. N had written a novel called Oh Salaam!, which is the title of Najwa Barakat’s only other novel to date translated into English. That novel was about the Lebanese Civil War and, gradually, we learn how various characters were affected by that war, including Mr. N himself, but also the fictitious Luqman (who may not have been entirely fictitious) and, in particular, Mr N’s father.

Luqman seems to be very much alive, even if he is fictitious and Mr. N. gets in an altercation with his men. Things start going further downhill for our hero, as he gets involved in various fights, his neighbours have major problems and we learn more about his past life and why he has ended up in this hotel, though Barakat reserves the final twist for the last page.

This is a splendid albeit highly complicated book. It is clearly, in part, intended to show the profound and lingering effect of the Civil War on the physical and mental health of the population of Beirut, how anarchy and chaos took over and are still prevalent and how some people have not been able to cope in the aftermath of the war. Mr. N himself is clearly a cipher for the author and the intellectuals and, indeed, the ordinary people of Beirut and his struggles, both mental and physical, seem to deepen. As we see things entirely from his point of view, we do get a distorted view of reality and it is this, as we plunge into his psyche, which makes for such a colourful book.

Publishing history

First published in 2019 by Dār al-Ādāb
First English translation in 2022 by And Other Stories
Translated by Luke Leafgren