These stories are full of restraint and deftly paced, while the symmetry of the collection is masterful.
Late in Abbas El-Zein's new story collection, one of his protagonists, a fictional version of a famous Arab geographer, tells a young protégé, as they leave their city to be ravaged by Mongols, that 'geography is an image of the world in your mind'. The story is entitled 'Bird's Eye'. It's something of a misnomer, of course. The stories in The Secret Maker of the World aren't the surveys of a cartographer or the sweeping narratives of a historian. Instead, like the geographer whose seminal work has long since outlived whatever life he led, the actions of protagonists are divorced from the repercussions.
Crossing from the East to the West and back again several times over, the stories describe the banality of invariably complicated circumstances which give rise to cataclysmic incident, mostly avoiding melodrama in favour of subtle extrapolation of stories seldom told, of subterfugal narratives displaced from history but essential to its continuity. A Chinese man seeks to avenge the incidental death of his daughter by trading cadavers to others like him. The piousness of an aggressive mayor, oblivious to the world outside his office en suite, renders him ultimately powerless to stop his world falling apart.
The protagonists are mostly middle-aged males whose lives have been characterised by upheaval. However, the collection is book-ended by the two exceptions – it opens with the story of an anonymous, isolated sniper lurking above war-torn Beirut and ends with an epistolary picaresque from a deaf woman to a former lover. This structure lends the The Secret Maker of the World a kind of psycho-geography, the dark heart of the young gunman and the wistful yearning of the deaf girl acting as conflicting forces propelling the older men through contemplations of natural justice and self-determination.
All of this takes place in the context of vivid, lyrical prose unfolding with dexterity over the course of stories content to take their time. El-Zein manipulates his voicing effectively, if not liberally, and meditates on no more than a few characters in each story, using his indelible way with transcribing physical space to inscribe his fictive environs with the regalia of movement through them. He, however, is given to whimsical spiritual turns and over-reaching metaphor, affecting a kind of wide-eyed bombast out-of-step with his more hard-nosed characters. The overstated cleverness and, moreover, the sheer quantity of such instances can undermine the naturalism of the tales and serve to draw too much attention back to the author, shifting the work from witty and fleet-footed to the kind of pedantic, overblown plodding too full of its own importance to be important.
This isn't always true, however, and the genuine insight and excitement of The Secret Maker of the World rescue it from such a forgettable fate. The stories are full of restraint and deftly paced, the symmetry of the collection is masterful, its simple concept executed with precision, rarely on-the-nose, challenging the audience to not be made 'ironic' by history, not to be 'suspicious of even the little events of our lives'. It is this contradiction – the fallibility of acting on faith in justice, in the possibility of historical dignity, the implausibility of living on the sentiment of an act of generosity or empathy – at the heart of El-Zein's book and this contradiction which lingers unresolved beneath the steadfast resolution of its closing paragraphs.
Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5
The Secret Maker of the World
By Abbas El-Zein
Release date: 26 February
, 192 pages
University of Queensland Press