Omar Sabbagh's extraordinary first prose work, Via Negativa: a parable of exile is launched this month. Subtle, layered, filled with beautiful prose and imagery, the novella is both an evocation of its central location, the city of Beirut, and a remarkable display of literary prowess that, nevertheless, never lets its verbal and thematic dexterity overwhelm the human and humane story at its heart. A truly beguiling and stunning debut novella, here Omar discusses the work's themes and influences.
Broadly-speaking, the work is set-up as taking place on the seven days of a Beirut week, and draws in part on my experience living and teaching in Beirut, between 2011 and 2013. Its main theme has to do with identity and identity in/of Beirut. Though peopled by many characters and many stories within the overall narrative, all cohere at a deeper, symbolic level; all the stories within stories being different, paratactic versions of being 'out of place,' to use Edward Said's phrase; making the book in conception a kind of auto-biography of Beirut, the city, herself.
The binaries made use of in the narrative typify a persona (city, or character(s)) in denial, dissociated; binaries such as: Christian/Muslim; rich/poor; fact/fiction; Lebanese/Palestinian; teacher/student; tragedy/comedy; and so on. Indeed, the opening scene has the main character ambling down Abdel-Aziz Street, a street which quite literally bifurcates Hamra and Ras Beirut.
The title refers to a medieval idea, according to which the only way to name the Absolute or God in human, spatio-temporal language, is by listing in a 'profane' manner, precisely, and indefinitely, what He is not. Indeed, the seven days of this tale are set-off against the more orderly seven days of religious myth, being, in order, an off-version of the latter. I like to think of this first work, if you will, as my very Beiruti version of Joyce's first published novel, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.
In terms of (bevelled) influences: Lawrence Durrell's strategy of personalising the 'city' was an early prod to attempting to represent Beirut as I see, or saw, it. Furthermore, there is an implicit parody in the book; while Durrell's major works elicit dire wisdom and unctuous realisations from the sex life, one of the main character's diary in the work, titled, 'The Intensities and the Parentheses', is the (parodic) diary of a sexual nincompoop: the inverse of Durrell. This is thus: the unravelling of the city, Beirut, in another mode; for there's nothing of hale recognition about this city; unlike Durrell's Alexandria, say, there are no healthy conclusions to be made, and pocketed. All remains an open, and a tawdry, question; shame upon shame.
At the last, who is who and what is what are questions the novella pose, if a tad reflexively. And this is of the essence of that apparition or chameleon that is Beirut. While all agree (I've experienced this) that the city, for all its verve, is radically moribund, who exactly the 'patients' are remains a mystery. From east to west, each will affirm your diagnosis of something amiss in or at the beating heart of the city, but none of those very affidavits will ever indict themselves. An enigma in a riddle in a mystery, or something along those lines: that is the amorphous pattern by which Beirut is (un)named. The most beautiful, vibrant city: but one which can only express such inborn brilliance by failure after failure; its dense colour, by the matt and the deadpan. The city as elicited by this book is a grand, grand profanity: and that is what I've tried to capture.