As with many of the reviews which I am writing of late, I chose to include Nihad Sirees’ The Silence and the Roar on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge list. The novel, which is written by an exiled Syrian author, is set in an unnamed dictatorship, which resembles that of Syria. The lovely (as ever) Pushkin Press edition which I purchased has been translated from its original Arabic by Max Weiss.
The Independent on Sunday declares The Silence and the Roar ‘Profound and topical… a chilling portrait of a people whose lives are dominated by fear.’ The novella’s central character is Fathi Sheen, a writer ‘who is no longer permitted to write’. In its opening couple of chapters, he decides to pass against the mandatory participants of parades for the unnamed dictator, which are taking place all over the city on this particular Sunday. Of these, he observes: ‘Looking down at the corner where the two streets intersect, I saw a remarkable scene. Both streets were packed with crowds that undulated and surged as hundreds of pictures of the Leader fluttered over the heads of the masses like waves on the sea.’ Upon leaving his flat, he plans to visit first his mother, and then his girlfriend, Lama. Such an act, and his lack of participation in the parade, marks him out as ‘an individual so a traitor.’
Fathi is troubled; many issues which he faces stem from his place as almost a pariah in society, unable to work at the craft which he loves. His days begin to lose shape, and he alters greatly due to the conditions which he is forced to live with: ‘In the bathroom I took stock of what I did yesterday. For some time I have been suffering from unhappiness and self-loathing because I don’t actually do much of anything. Yesterday was like the day before and like the day before that and like any day months earlier. I don’t do anything any more. I don’t write. I don’t read. I don’t even think.’
The Silence and the Roar is a diurnal novella, which takes place on one single stifling Sunday. Sirees’ descriptions of the city and its heat are sensuous, and one can almost feel the searing of their skin as they are taken around the city by Fathi. His narrative voice is measured and intelligent, and gives us potted histories of other characters whom he comes across as the book goes on. On the whole however, despite some wonderfully vivid descriptions, the prose was a little too matter-of-fact for my particular taste.
The blurb states that ‘The Silence and the Roar is a personal, urgent, funny and aggrieved novel. It asks what it means to have a conscience, or to laugh, or to endure in a time of the violence, strangeness and roar of tyranny.’ Whilst some very current, issues are explored here, the lack of distinct setting did feel a little distancing. I respect what Sirees was trying to do here, in demonstrating that such dictatorships can occur all over the world, but I do feel as though it made the whole feel rather impersonal. The fictional aspect of it made it lose some of the horror and tension which I believe it would have had had it been directly about Syria.
Sirees also shows how little has really changed in those parts of the world which are forced to live under such conditions, originally published as it was in 2004. The Silence and the Roar was written several years before the Syrian conflict began, but there are many echoes of the destruction and fear to come within its pages. As a social document, it is both important and fascinating. Regardless, The Silence and the Roar did not quite have the impact which I was expecting.