by Dimitri Nasrallah
Esplanade Books, 2018
There have been three generations of single-family rule in Mahbad, “a tiny territory, a backyard province of the Ottaman Empire that later ended up an obscure British colony until 1961.” A Boran-Lezer sectarian divide festers. Mustafa, who represents the second generation of this rule, has orchestrated the election of his son, Vadim. Mustafa sleeps badly, “trawling through a swamp of revenge fantasies,” and wakes up too early in the morning. Age is taking its toll, plastic surgery can only pull the skin back so far.
He’s tempted to “just let the whole region spiral off without [him], put on the blinders.” But he can’t: “This is Bleed country, [his] father’s invention, [his] life’s work, Vadim’s responsibility, [the] family’s legacy.” He’s tempted to arrest journalists, deport them, cut off their fingers, “ship the whole lot of them off to uranium mining camps where they can quietly suffer the many accidents that happen to those who aren’t careful.”
“We could wrap up this whole mess in a matter of hours,” he thinks.
An election has been held, and the national newspaper is clamouring for results. People are burning down polling stations, stray dogs roam the streets. Rallies are held at Revolution Square. Three opposition candidates have gone missing. Even Mustafa is “exhausted by all the lying that had to be done to keep everything on track.” He can’t help but wonder if the country wouldn’t be better off if he was still in charge.
Nasrallah paints a vivid picture of this fictitious dictatorship, especially the father/son relationship that at once holds the country together and threatens to bring the whole house of cards crashing down. Mustafa’s past goes down easily, combining facts the reader should know with lessons learned, the characters chatting away amiably to the reader, eager to draw them in and gain their trust and understanding. “Have you ever seen where ballots go to get counted?” they ask, as though we were regular visitors to Qala Phratteh. “Listen,” they say. “Can you hear the men shouting, the roar of Jeeps and heavy artillery?”
The “few old faces left in the rebel wings” can smell blood, sensing that Vadim (who has no interest in governing) is the weak link they’ve been waiting for. Word has it that an operation is underway. Against Vadim. There are rumours of voting irregularities, an international conspiracy against the Bleed family, a stolen election.
Vadim has long since realized “you can either be beneath the clouds being rained on […] or above the clouds, in control.” He hangs out with the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, the Sovereign Prince of Monaco, the Crown Prince of Thailand. He’s grown up in boarding schools around the world, feeling like he’s competing against the country’s entire history. His grandfather named the place, his father ran it for 29 years. When trouble strikes, he takes off to Austria, looking to drive his new Porsche until things settle down.
It’s beautifully put together. Fascinating and entertaining and disturbing all at once. Nothing feels superfluous; not a line is out of place. Nasrallah switches tone effortlessly from newspaper report to blog and back and forth between Bleed senior and junior, who both speak in the first person but are entirely distinct and instantly identifiable. Drama builds with each change in perspective.
There’s political intrigue, but plenty of action too. Moves to be made between this and the new normal, with a state of emergency and flashes of black humour in between. The violence and despair go up a notch as the book progresses and the death toll mounts. There is talk of genocide.
The Bleeds examines the line between the personal and the political, or perhaps more accurately the overlap between the personal and political worlds, the impact of one on the other. But while most reviewers have tended to focus on what this novel tells us about revolutions like the Arab Spring, that seems a little unfair to the elephant in the room: this is a very enjoyable novel, a very well-written, readable piece of literary fiction (in a genre where the words well-written and readable don’t always go together). As readers, we’re fully invested in these characters. That takes no small amount of skill from Nasrallah, especially given the regular changes in style and shifting viewpoints, both of which feel necessary and valuable, never contrived.
“Perception is a complicated thing,” we learn along the way. “It can get so messy.”
It makes for an important, memorable piece of fiction. The characters at once attract and repel us, lingering on in the mind long after we’ve put the book down.
Review by Peter McCambridge
Read an excerpt