Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
In the run-up to its publication, Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian was trumpeted as one of the most significant debuts of the year. There were promises of pure genius and literary stardom, all crystallized in a truly exceptional novel that tackles Palestine in the early decades of the 20th century. On the cover, Zadie Smith – Hammad’s teacher at NYU – compares the author to Flaubert and Stendhal, and going by all the hype, I was expecting nothing less than an Arab rendering of War and Peace by a modern Tolstoy. It was clever marketing, no doubt, but I cannot help but feel that it has done Hammad a disservice: The Parisian is an accomplished debut, but – not surprisingly – it cannot live up to the great expectations created for it.
The Parisian traces the years between the end of the Ottoman empire and the rise of Palestinian nationalism through its romantic hero, Midhat Kamal, and his travels across Palestine, Egypt and France. At the outset in 1914, Midhat, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, travels from his home in Nablus, Palestine, to Montpellier, France, to study medicine in order to avoid the First World War. There, he lives with Dr Molineu, a sociologist, and his daughter Jeanette. Both Midhat and Jeanette have grown up motherless from a young age, and they soon find a personal bond that evolves into romance.
They know that their relationship would be scorned by society were it to come out. However, the romance shatters in an unexpected way, when Midhat discovers that Dr Molineu has been observing him as a subject for his study as a token Arab; reduced to not-quite-human and surrendering to a scene of dinner table rage, Midhat runs off to Paris. There, he takes on a bonne-vivant role, alternating between debauchery and intellectual discussions with pan-Syrian intellectuals, some of whom will play a key role in the later political developments in the region.
With the First World War over, Midhat returns to Palestine, now under British occupation, to take over his father’s shop and to face the expectations of culture and family. Around him, nationalism – first Syrian, then Palestinian – is on the rise, eventually leading to bloody upheavals throughout the region. All through this, Midhat carries Jeanette and his years in France with him, and it is them, rather than the politics, that will eventually come to haunt him.
At over 500 pages and with a complex topic that has repercussions to politics today, Hammad cannot be blamed for a lack of ambition: she covers geographical distance, decades in time, and a cast of characters so rich that the book comes with a list attached. Hammad manages to avoid any trace of superficiality, which is always a risk for anything attempting such a broad coverage, by focusing on Midhat and casting others as ad-ons to his experience. Rather than a study of character development, her novel uses her varied cast as a clever tactic to offer the reader glimpses at different social and cultural layers – academic debates in Montpellier and the effects of war on scientific research, French nuns and priests working in Nablus and Jerusalem, women’s marches, as well as the complexities of negotiating identities in Palestine and Syria.
Hammad manages to create a feel for place and time, moving between French war-time gatherings and a women’s hammam in Nablus with an enviable fluency. For this, The Parisian is simply breath-taking, reading as a truly old-fashioned, epic novel. And yes, it even has something of War and Peace in it: it boasts a narrative without tricks, taking the reader into consideration, and a style of prose that is perhaps not unique but one beautifully suited for the endurance that the 500 pages require.
Yet, I cannot agree with the hype. It is perhaps because of how much Hammad has taken on to cover that the novel drags on as a whole. There is a lot of general lingering and little build-up of tension, which is remarkable given the wealth of material and its potential for more engaging story-telling. At times it even feels as if the author introduces sub-themes and then forgets about them without following them through – the search for an Evil Eye, Midhat’s relationship with his stepmother, and the feminist activism of Sahar, the young wife of a central political figure, all wither out as plots before they are fully exhausted. With so much material, potential gems along with a more gripping structure are lost in the wealth of it all.
The Parisian is by all means an accomplished novel and one that manages to combine the personal with the political. Hammad may well become Flaubert or Stendhal, but she just is not quite there yet with this debut.
Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.
Isabella Hammad, The Parisian (Jonathan Cape, 2019). 978-1911214427, x 576pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via affiliate link.