by Emmanuel Kattan
translated by Kathryn Gabinet-Kroo
Exile Editions, 2014
Paths of Desire is a novel that challenges boundaries. The cover of the book, showing an image of a blood-spattered gun and bleeding rose against a pure white background, proclaims its contents as “a mystery thriller,” yet there is a distinct literary feel to the pages that lie within. Unlike a traditional detective novel, which typically leads with the premise that a crime has been committed and focuses on the ensuing investigation, this novel flirts with the ambiguous, almost refusing to acknowledge that a crime may have taken place.
Then there’s Sara, the character around whose mysterious disappearance the story converges. She has her own personal boundaries to explore:
“My father is Jewish. My mother is Muslim. I am both. I’ve lived a long time without asking myself any questions.”
A Montrealer by birth, she feels the time has come to connect with her roots and explore her identity. So she travels to Jerusalem to pursue her university studies. Sara has a foot in both camps of one of the most polarizing societies many readers can imagine, and seems unaware of how carefully she must tread in order to avoid turning new friends into enemies.
Parallel narratives weave their way through this novel, feeding morsels of information to the reader that will gradually shed light on what has happened to Sara. The story begins with Daniel, Sara’s father, as he arrives in Jerusalem in search of his daughter. After almost daily email contact with Sara since she left Montreal six months earlier, he grows concerned after not hearing from her for over a week. When he contacts the university, he learns she has not been attending classes, and arranges to fly out after hearing the police have been alerted. He is understandably concerned, and fears what he may discover. “’I must not panic, I must not panic.’ He had repeated this little phrase to himself almost non-stop since leaving Montreal. It had become his compass, his haven, like a reassuring bit of music sung to a child to help him fall asleep. But despite his efforts, Daniel could not stop thinking the worst.”
The second narrative consists of entries Sara has written in her journal, conveniently dated to help the reader reconstruct the chain of events. After offering a brief glimpse of Daniel’s arrival in Israel, dangling the carrot of Sara’s disappearance in front of the reader’s nose, and painting the portrait of a man in distress, author Emmanuel Kattan rewinds the story to the day of Sara’s arrival in Jerusalem six months earlier, inviting the reader into her thoughts and proffering a front-row seat for the adventure on which she is embarking. Interspersed between Sara’s journal entries are numerous email exchanges between father and daughter, the frequency and transparency of which change noticeably as time goes by and the plot thickens.
Sara’s initial journal entries suggest a certain naivety and innocence. When did things get so complicated? When I was little, I didn’t need to know what it meant to be Jewish or Muslim. With Mama, I woke at dawn and joined her in her prayers. With Papa, I read the Bible stories […] I asked nothing more. In the beginning, although she feels very much like an outsider, she recounts pleasant scenes of songs around a campfire with her fellow volunteers on an archeological dig: I got up and went to sit under a tree on the far side of the dig. The music was little more than a distant murmur, and the night’s fragrant breeze was the only thing that, every now and then, disturbed the serenity of the place. Yet in a matter of months, something changes so profoundly for her that she shifts to short, staccato expressions of desperation and panic. That’s it. It started again. I can’t take this anymore. […] he made me promise not to tell the police. But I’m too scared. I’m giving him two more minutes. If he’s not back by then, then I’m calling…
The people whose paths cross Sara’s in Israel clearly shape her experience and influence her exploration of her identity. She finds a friend in her roommate Samira, who steps up later in the novel to help Daniel in his search for his daughter. And there is a fleeting, eye-opening encounter with a shopkeeper in the Arab Quarter, to whom she reveals her ethnic duality:
“His expression, which had been so warm just a few minutes earlier, turned to ice; his features hardened as if he had been wearing a mask that, after having been animated for a moment, had returned to its habitual rigidity.”
A cornerstone of the novel is Sara’s brief, barely consensual relationship with Avner, a suave Jewish restaurant owner who pursues her relentlessly and whose silent, frightening expression of frustration has her fearing for her safety for a while after she breaks up with him. Then there is Ibrahim, a nervous, stuttering student who defies stereotypes and whom Sara finds utterly intriguing. Why did I assume that he was Jewish? Because of his clothes and unaccented Hebrew? I really must be full of prejudices if I think that only a Jew could be passionate about Israeli literature and the author of a thesis on the Bible.
Paths of Desire is an intriguing title for a novel. “You see them in parks sometimes. They’re the rough trails made by people who leave the marked footpaths and cut across a grassy area or field. Some say these paths are the result of bad urban planning, but I wonder if it isn’t simply an expression of non-conformity, a desire for freedom.”
Daniel explains to Samira that in her youth, Sara was intrigued by these improvised footpaths on Mount Royal and wanted to create one of her own: “So every Sunday morning for an entire summer, she rode her bike down the slope leading to the cemetery, hoping that others would follow this new path.” By coming to Israel to explore her identity, is Sara striving to blaze new trails as she wanted to do in her youth? Or is she playing with fire? Indeed, Samira muses, “perhaps this land has already been crisscrossed by so many paths that there’s no room to create any new ones.”
Again, a traditional “mystery thriller” this is not—although it is a mystery, and it is thrilling. Barely any ink on paper is given to Detective Nathan Ben-Ami, the man in charge of the police investigation into Sara’s disappearance. He almost seems like a cardboard cut-out. Disinterested, pasted into the novel to keep up official appearances as a disillusioned Daniel plays detective, trying to piece together Sara’s last known movements and track down the people she met along the way.
Somehow, the focus on Daniel being the one hunting for answers draws the reader in closer and makes the story feel more real, more personal. While the outcome we learn about is definitive, the final pages bring no clear explanations and the reader is left to backtrack and read between the lines of earlier pages in search of the truth. Sometimes we must draw our own conclusions.
Review by David Warriner