For June we’re reading حجر الضحك لهدى بركات / The Stone of Laughter, by Lebanese author Hoda Barakat, which won the Al-Naqid Literary Prize in 1990. The English translation is by Sophie Bennett.
A brief summary of the book from Goodreads:
“The Stone of Laughter is a virile novel which brings forth the contradictory history of a city under fire through the life and dilemmas of a gay man. It is a bold and radical novel, full of black humor and cynical observations about life in war-torn Beirut. In 1990, when it first appeared in Arabic, it was hailed by critics throughout the Arab world as the best novel set against the background of the Lebanese civil war.
The fractured narrative is woven around Khalil, a gay man who tried to avoid ideological or military affiliations as he finds himself confronted with the collapse of his civil society. His only contact with the world at large is through his friends at a newspaper, for whom falling bombs meant great stories rather than tragedy and destruction. Khalil struggles to keep himself away from the war but is inevitably drawn in as he realizes that in a city of war, no one can remain neutral.
Written sensitively, without a trace of sentimentality or political propaganda, The Stone of Laughter shook readers’ preconceptions about women’s writing and questioned the necessity of political affiliation for Arab authors.”
For more on the book, take a look at Read Kutub‘s discussion. For more about Barakat, take a look at this profile with Youssef Rakha in Al-Ahram Weekly from 1999, or this interview in Jadaliyya from 2012.
We’ll meet to discuss on Wednesday, June 26th 2013.
*UPDATE: Thoughts from our discussion after the jump.
Our discussion of The Stone of Laughter centered around several points and questions:
- Comparisons were made to The Tiller of Waters, Hoda Barakat’s other novel set during the Lebanese Civil War, which we discussed in July 2010. Protagonists in both novels are introverted, introspective characters, distanced and alienated from the conflict going on outside.
- The elusiveness of reality in The Stone of Laughter, another similarity it shares with The Tiller of Waters. Metaphors and description blend into reality, the narrator’s dreams and fantasies blend with events in the narrative, and the reader is left unsure what is real and what is not, perhaps expressing the unknowable, incomprehensible nature of conflict.
- The characterization of war, and the narrator’s positionality. He is cynical of the conflict, preferring to occupy himself with his own personal affairs. This differs from ways we have seen other authors engage with conflict – the satirical War in the Land of Egypt or the moral imperative expressed in I Was Born There, I Was Born Here. Readers said the narrator’s personal engagement with the conflict – or disengagement from it – reminded them perhaps more of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, written about the Prague Spring period of Czechoslovak history.