February 19, 2024
“A novel of petrifying acuity” “A masterpiece” – Le Journal du Dimanche’s review of Douaihy’s Poison in the air

“A novel of petrifying acuity” “A masterpiece” – Le Journal du Dimanche’s review of Douaihy’s Poison in the air

Georges Grange, for Le Journal du Dimanche, January 8, 2024

“Poison in the Air,” by Jabbour Douaihy: Houellebecq in Lebanon, in a classical and profound style,

Among the literary production, there are good novels. And among the good novels are the remarkable ones, those that imprint themselves on us, those that come back like past lights on our present, those that nudge us with a whisper: “I told you so, go on, you’re not alone in experiencing this.”  “Poison in the Air” unquestionably belongs to these masterpieces.

In an increasingly fragmented Lebanon, from the 1950s to the explosion in August 2020 in the port of Beirut, the narrator tries to live and exist. He embarks on countless projects (political, marital, professional…) and, despite his efforts, failure seems to follow him through his wanderings: Tripoli, the mountains, the Beirut-by-the-Sea hotel run by a married and insatiable woman, to the prisons where he eventually finds solace… This character, born to a Maronite and communist father, who will be married to a Shiite by an Assyrian priest, sometimes courageous, sometimes downtrodden, embodies Lebanon: in its religious diversity that has become a burden, in its ambition thwarted by overwhelming facts, in its sense of futility that is no longer fatalism. This anti-hero is also each of us (since masterpieces will continue to be the particular speaking to the universal), when we want to change the world and the world crushes us. Unlike Melville’s Bartleby, where inaction constrains force, here we witness perhaps an even more shared trait: where force constrains action.

Solitude as a resigned refusal of the world

What remains when everything is slowly denied us, family, love, peace? There remains the poetry of solitude, the senses turned towards everything that does not participate in the violence of the world: “I remember that I was not distressed by what awaited me, and a pleasant breeze blew that morning,” says the narrator while awaiting the arrival of the police. This poetry against all odds is evidently an escape from the world, a voluntary exile, even if it means departing from reason, even if it means plunging into the madness that is sometimes so sweet.

In many ways, this novel recalls the characters of Michel Houellebecq or Jean-Philippe Toussaint, those who resign themselves yet hope for a better life, despite successive and inevitable failures. It is even more heartbreaking when these destinies take place in a country like Lebanon, which seems to crush freedom so easily, where surrender seems to be the only solution in the face of superior and all-powerful entities. However, one must try, despite everything, as in a last leap. Before fading away in 2021, Jabbour Douaihy offered a final novel of universal pessimism, of petrifying acuity, and put the finishing touch on a dense work traversed by his intimate questioning: what can man do, what can man really do? Moving.