Vehicule Press, 2011
Softcover, 235 pages
Niko, the second in our Argo Bookstore, Montreal series, could not be more different from Peter Dubé’s The City’s Gates. Whereas Dube’s writing is atmospheric, esoteric, and darkly surreal, Niko is a linear narrative told with straightforward and transparent simplicity. Each is memorable in its own way.
Six-year-old Nakhle Karam, Niko for short, is anxiously awaiting the birth of a sibling, hoping against hope for a younger brother, but willing to be happy with a sister. Life as an only child has become irksome since the violence of the Lebanese civil war has rendered outside play with friends in his Beirut neighbourhood impossibly dangerous. Granted, the extra attention he receives from his father Antoine, also more or less confined to the family apartment after his camera shop was destroyed in a bomb blast, is a bonus, but overall Niko’s horizons have narrowed and ennui has set in. The eventual resumption of school routines is, therefore, for Niko, a very welcome development. It is a cruel irony that his first day back, which began with such pride and optimism, ends in utter catastrophe — his expectant mother killed by a bomb blast — and events set in motion that will define and utterly reshape his life and that of his father.
With an already impossible life in a bombed out apartment deteriorating rapidly, the danger of their situation becoming increasingly untenable, and the future of his young son foremost in his mind, Antoine makes the critical decision to leave. Opportunities to flee are limited and transient, and when an opening presents itself, Antoine must act quickly, with little time for planning. Within twenty-four hours, taking only what they can carry, Antoine and Niko are sleeping under the stars aboard a ferry bound for Cyprus, enacting a leap of faith into the world and an unknown future, the flashes of gunfire and “fiery orange balls of smoke” over the city of Jounieh receding into the dark “like a bad dream.”
What follows is a story of what it is to be adrift in the world, to lose one life, to pay the cost of finding another, and the capacity and limits of human adaptability.
Antoine is an extraordinary, ordinary man: kind, affectionate, thoughtful, honest, humble and hardworking, and able, under tremendous strain, to keep his wits about him. While it is possible, of course, that his fate and that of his son might have spiraled downwards more quickly if he had not possessed these very admirable traits, in the end they seem to do him little good. Faced with a series of impossible situations, in which there seem to be no correct choices of action, or, at least, no way in which to ascertain them, Antoine’s quest to keep family together is defeated in a heartbreakingly short time, and he is forced to send a very young Niko, alone, on a plane to Montreal, Canada, to live with a little-known sister-in-law Yvonne and her considerably older husband Sami. It is an act of desperation, a seed sent out on wind currents in the hopes that something might survive. It will take nearly twelve years for them to be physically reunited and the father eighteen-year-old Niko finds in Valparaiso, Chile is a shadow of the man he last saw at the departure gates of the Athens airport.
My ancestral myth of immigration had its origins in Ireland and England of the 1800’s, and our collective family memory of this time is lost — replaced by new myths of adventure and survival as pioneers in what is now central Ontario. I suspect, though, that the stories told of that diaspora were also of adventure, of quick wits, and intrepid survival. The nature of these stories suggests that those with wit and resilience, and the courage to believe in the beneficence of fate, will find a “happily ever after.” This is a youthful outlook, and probably a necessary one. Without it, who would ever have the strength to go? The essential components of the myth are closely guarded — tied, inextricably, to our sense of identity as hardy survivors, a source of pride, and, a perhaps more dimly perceived talisman against what might come.
Conversely, amongst those who have left a homeland under duress, there is a competing myth, the auld lang syne of what was lost — ancient blood ties, traditions, land, (the Ireland of my imagination) — the true home. In Valparaiso, Chile, the city in which Antoine’s quest to reunite with Niko ends, there is a small, expatriate Arab community. The bonds which the second generations share are linked to a land they have never visited, but which lives in their imagination as the enchanted kingdom, the fairytale home. However, as one leader of this group explains it,
many of them prefer it that way. To visit the lands to which they belong at this point would ultimately disappoint them, as they would have to take down the elaborate portraits of villages they’ve conjured from their parents’ or grandparents’ stories and replace them with a drab and conflicted reality
I bring up these points in an attempt to elucidate the overall effect of this novel, which, in defiance of its superficial simplicity, carries a persistent, though ill-defined, rumble of disquiet. The story, it turns out, has a significant undertow. The source of this unease seems most closely linked to the ways in which the simple story subverts the essential components of our mythologies. The reality of Antoine and Niko’s situation, and its outcome, bear the same relationship to our myths of diasporic adventure as the real “drab and conflicted” hometowns do to the villages of the expatriots’ imaginations. And, in the end, perhaps we, also, would prefer not to know.
Antoine, measured by my family standards of heroism, would seem to have all the right stuff. In the midst of extremity and sorrow, he is still bold, resilient, resourceful, persistent, courageous, and honest, able to act quickly when necessary, and always focused on his son’s best interests, and the goal of preserving the family. His decisions always seem to be the best that can be made under the circumstances. He never loses his humanity. Yet he cannot succeed. He seems to be stuck in the wrong story. Fate stubbornly refuses to cooperate; the narrative veers from the prescribed arc. Persistent in his attempts to find his way back to his son, he finds passage from North Africa working on a freighter bound for South America, only to be shipwrecked, and nearly drowned. Surviving by clinging to a piece of ladder from the ship, he is comatose when finally rescued, and as a result of the ordeal, loses the memory of his former life. Thus, all is lost, and at this point, little gained. Myth is eroded, and with it, identity and confidence. With the exception of First Nations peoples, we North Americans have all, in our family history, a relatively recent story of immigration. Embedded somewhere within it is the (unexamined?) assumption that our ancestors succeeded because they had the right stuff. That’s the story. And, it necessarily follows, we also carry in our genes what we need to face the future with confidence. Antoine and Niko’s experience attacks this sustaining myth, suggesting that adherence to heroic ideals will have little bearing on outcomes, and that, in fact, life is not a story, but random, disinterested, and quixotic.
In the end, Antoine, failed in his quest to rebuild his old life in a new country, and to keep his family together. And yet, in a configuration he could never have imagined, he has provided Niko with a new life and a new story. Nearly drowning himself, he has taught his son to swim, and it is Niko who manages to effect an eventual reunion with his father. From a multi-generational perspective, fate has shown itself to be unpredictable and exacting, yes, but, ultimately, humane.
Another significant triumph of Nasrallah’s deceptively transparent writing is the power with which the utter isolation of displacement, and of what it means to wander amongst people with whom one has no standing and no history, is communicated. In his travels, Antoine meets a few scoundrels, and at least one saint — on average, human behaviour is neither utterly despicable nor overly praiseworthy, but the story is haunted by his loneliness, the loneliness of an outsider whose worth cannot be known, and, therefore, has no currency. The reader, who has come to know Antoine well, feels the weight of the injustice, and, thus, comes to better understand some of what it is that Antoine has left behind.
The ultimate tension in this story, as in other recent stories exploring the immigrant experience (David Bezmozgis’ The Free World, Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13) is the conflict between what is lost and what is gained, between personal authenticity and adaptability, and the weight of the decision, to stay or to go. Despite this rather lengthy analysis, I still find myself compelled to re-examine each of Antoine’s decisions, each made in extremis, and wonder, which one was the mistake, the failure of wit and resourcefulness which precluded a happy ever after. Old myths are hard to shed. But, as Antoine’s story illustrates, sometimes it is not the decisions, but the world in which they had to be made that is mistaken, and as Sami Malik, Yvonne’s husband, and Niko’s stepfather, of sorts, notes, in the closing passage of the book,
This is why people are designed to carry mistakes, and this is why people should keep a room in their souls for what they might have done differently.
Further discussion from Literary Press Group of Canada (including a Q & A with the author) http://www.lpg.ca/CDAReads/Day4