European Literature Days 2016: Review of Najem Wali by Beat Mazenauer

In The Invisible Cities (Le Città invisibili), Italo Calvino wrote, “The hell of the living is not something that will be”. It is already here; it takes on real contours during times of war. Scarcely any other book in recent years has described war in such a nightmarish and intensive way as Najem Wali in his incredible novel Baghdad Marlboro. He describes a country torn apart in fear and shock: Iraq. And he narrates in a touching way how an individual person becomes guilty in war, even if he resists this with all his might.

The American black soldier, Daniel Brooks, is the lamentable victim. He is called up to the Middle East and serves his duty far from the front by setting up supply depots as a competent organizer. But a sadistic army major sets a trap for him. He forces him to kill Iraqi soldiers in a mass grave with a bulldozer. Daniel Brooks is one of the tragic heroes in this book; he is a counter-example for the idealistic viewpoint that all soldiers are murderers because there is always a way to refuse orders. During war-time there is no mercy either on the enemy’s side or from your own side.

Alongside Brooks the American lieutenant, David Barbiero, on the one side, while on the other the Iraqi poet, Salmân Mâdi, and his friend, the first-person narrator get caught in the crossfire of conflict. While the narrator survives the gulf wars (like Daniel Brooks) behind the lines, his friend Salmân is sent to the front. Here, in 1990, he meets Barbiero who was taken prisoner by the Iraqis. They share cigarettes and swap stories until the madness of war detonates their brief respite of peace. Barbiero is killed – because of Salmân’s complicity? In the chaos, Salmân loses a notebook in which he had written down the dreams of his fellow soldiers. By chance it falls into the hands of Daniel Brooks, who back home and plagued by nightmares, remembers it. The two narrative plots intertwine. Spurred on by an indication about the narrator, which is contained in the notebook, he intends to hand it back to its rightful owner. But the return to Iraq is dangerous both for the American, Brooks, and his contact man, the narrator.

To kill or be killed, that is the question posed by Najem Wali in his novel, which is powerful in so many respects, and yet still just 350 pages long. There is no escape from the ever-changing fronts. The narrator is given an ultimatum by the Islamists: he should single-handedly murder his “friend”, Daniel Brooks. That is the meaning of war, as Wali demonstrates: to load guilt onto those who do not want any of it. War destroys people, regardless of whether they perish or survive, like Salmân, a plausible and impressive character.

“Reality put every fantasy in the shade”, is one observation. And the narrator continues by asking how he should approach his task with a love of recounting a story because for him “all the stories, disasters and events, the murdering and destruction happening right in front of me” takes away any desire to tell anything. Nevertheless, he still does so with oscillating precision, with an alarming graphic quality and evidently with the keenest insights. At least for him, ultimately, there is a moderately happy ending. From the safety of exile, he writes his book with the subtitle, “A Novel for Bradley Manning”. In other words, it is dedicated to the soldier, whose betrayal of secrets to WikiLeaks exposed American war crimes in Iraq and, in 2013, was sentenced to 35 years in prison. The narrator has written this book for him, “so he learns that he is not a traitor.”

Najem Wali was born in 1956 in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. To escape being called up for the First Gulf War, he fled to Germany in 1980, where he has since lived and worked as a writer. His essay about killing, Im Kopf des Terrors, has been published recently.

By Beat Mazenauer

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

  This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 6 October 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory


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