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February 18, 2024
“Magnificent yet pessimistic”, “clear, economical, and restrained writing” – Le Monde reviews Douaihy’s “Poison in the air”

“Magnificent yet pessimistic”, “clear, economical, and restrained writing” – Le Monde reviews Douaihy’s “Poison in the air”

Richard Jacquemond, for Le Monde, January 16, 2024

“Poison in the air’ from Jabbour Douaihy: a funeral song for Lebanon.

[ Released in France, by Sindbad, Actes Sud, in January 2024. Translated by Stephanie Dujols ]

The magnificent yet pessimistic last novel of the Lebanese writer, who passed away in 2021.

Published in Beirut a few weeks before the author’s passing, “Poison in the Air,” the latest novel by Jabbour Douaihy (1949-2021), has all the characteristics of a testament. The Lebanese writer depicts a hero and narrator who resembles him in more ways than one: a lover of books, of the Arabic language, and of French literature, which he teaches, he goes through Lebanon’s history from the 1950s to the explosion at the port of Beirut (August 2020), which closely precedes the end of the novel and the narrator’s death. Between the two, we follow him through his wanderings between the town of his childhood and his successive residences in Beirut, his militant engagements as extreme as they are ephemeral, the ups and downs of his love stories, and his relationships with an absent father, a depressive mother, and an aunt who returned from America and bequeathed him her fortune.

The metaphor of “Poison in the air” runs throughout the book, from the bloody vendettas the hero witnesses in his native village to the “column of smoke from toxic substances” he sees rising in the sky after the port explosion. Inevitably, this poison has also invaded him, nourishing in him a morbid inclination. Only the spectacle of death relieves him of his melancholy: “I turned away from my own sorrows by being around the dead, the wounded, the suffering. My sorrow returned when calm settled in for too long.” All his life, he seeks out danger, “driven by this desire for confrontation” that never leaves him, but all the wars he engages in come to an abrupt end. An eccentric character, he breaks successively with the people around him, leading an increasingly ascetic and solitary existence, sometimes distributing his wealth to the needy, sometimes plagued by desires to commit murder that he narrowly avoids carrying out.

Regardless of the events that affect him, this anti-hero recounts them with a vaguely ironic, even indifferent distance, a detachment of a dandy who watches himself live rather than lives. The country’s history is also evoked with the same distance, as if in dots and dashes. It is up to the reader to read between the lines the echoes of domestic and clan violence, civil war, and regional conflicts that determine the lives of the characters. Everything in Douaihy’s writing is suggested rather than demonstrated, or briefly evoked, as if self-evident, in clear, economical, and restrained writing, beautifully rendered in Stéphanie Dujols’ translation.

Swan song

Paradoxically, the more Douaihy’s protagonist withdraws from the world, unable not only to change it but simply to find meaning in it, the more he appears as the metaphorical expression of Lebanon’s decline, a country consumed by its demons and seemingly unstoppable on the path to self-destruction. The novelist’s pessimism goes further: his hero ends up burning one by one, after rereading them, the twenty books he has kept from his ideal library, as if to sign the futility of the myth of modern humanism. This testament novel, both a funeral song for Lebanon and the author’s swan song, a lover of literature who came to writing late and left us too soon, is also an invitation to read or reread his previous novels, to which “Poison in the Air” makes multiple references. No fewer than six other titles by Jabbour Douaihy are available from Actes Sud: a well-deserved tribute to his place in the contemporary Arabic literary landscape.