Mister N

Mister N

Publication Date: 2019

Publisher: Dar al adab

Country of Publication: Lebanon, Beirut

Pages: 255

Mistern Noon

This is the story of a man destroyed by his mother’s cold-heartedness. Desperate for love, or any emotion that would make him feel a live human, Mister N delves into Beirut’s underworld, provoking anyone who looks like they might give him a good beating. Until he is rescued by a Nepalese prostitute, who quenches his thirst for affection, and comes across a ghost from his past, Loqman, a man responsible for his father’s suicide.

Set in Beirut in the 2020s, the novel convincingly depicts the city’’s grit, its migrant laborers, sex workers and kings of the back alleys – previously powerful militia men. This is where the novel brilliantly weaves together Mister N’s complex psychology and personal story, with the city’s violent history.

Mister N believes he lives in a hotel, to which he moved because his beloved apartment in Abdel Wahab Al Inklizi street, Beirut, has been overshadowed by a horrid skyscraper that deprived him from light. In that hotel, Mister N is annoyed with his neighbors: Dawood, whose real name is Majed, and Maryam, who keeps inviting him over for dinner in her room. Mister N used to be a writer. To please the lovely Ms. Zahra, who looks after him, he decides to get back to writing, using sharpened Faber Castel 2B pencils. However, one sordid event disrupts Mister N’s structured life: He sees Dawood help Maryam hang herself from one of his favorite orange trees, in the hotel’s courtyard. Majed (aka Dawood) is arrested for murder, to Mister N’s dismay, as he firmly believes that Dawood merely helped Maryam put an end to her misery.

The reader eventually finds out that Mister N does not reside in a hotel, but in a psychiatric hospital, and that his older brother Saed sold their family apartment on the upscale street of Abdel Wahab Al Inklizi to pay for his stay in the luxurious section of this establishment. All the while, the reader follows the reminiscences of Mister N: His painful childhood, with Thurayya, his mother, whose love was exclusively for Saed; his father, a doctor who would treat the poor for free, and whose suiscide leaves Mister N a true orphan in his own home; the encounter with Shaiga, a prostitute; the encounter with Loqman; and Shaiga’s murder which will cause him to be interned in this institution.

Layer after layer, the reader gets to the heart of the matter. Loqman, the militia man who massacred the Palestinians of the Quarantina refugee camp in January of 1976, and who is responsible for the suiscide of N’s father, is Mister N’s obsession, and ultimately, the only meaning to his life.
In this deeply psychological novel, Najwa Barakat brilliantly succeeds in demonstrating how the violence of war is a personal matter. How it shapes people, and determines their personal, mental, lives. Mister N is trapped in his past, partly because of its brutality, and partly because of the love from which he was deprived. But also because the city, which is itself shaped by violence, doesn’t allow him to escape.
Until the very end, the reader follows Mister N’s hallucinations, ultimately deadly ones. There was Loqman the first, who Mr. N overheard his father talking about, the militia man who murdered all the Palestinians in the camp his father was working in. There was Loqman the second, that Mister N wrote about in one of his novels. And there is Loqman the third, that Mister N found in a rundown internet shop in Burj Hammoud, a poor neighborhood of Beirut. Loqman is Mister N’s enemy, the man that took his father away from him. As well as his only friend: the only presence that gives any meaning to his life. Loqman comes back to haunt Mister N in his room, until, in a deadly fight, Mister N kills Loqman with his sharpened pencils. Except that when Ms. Zahra comes in the room that morning, it is to find Mrs. N, soaked with blood. The lady writer, who had voluntarily committed herself to this psychiatric institutions years ago, is lying dead, surrounded by the pages of a manuscript, which told the story of Mister N, at grips with his demons.
It is hard not to draw some connections between Mrs N, and the author herself, whose previous novel Ya Salam precisely featured a militia man named Loqman. Beyond this personal reference, Mister N powerfully depicts the relationships one has with her demons, a relationship that is both constitutive and destructive, of one’s personal identity. She brilliantly deconstructs and analyzes the incapacity to get rid of these demons and overcome them without it costing one her life. In some way, what Najwa Barakat describes is Beirut’s relationship to the civil war.

Translated by Luke Leafgren

Mr. N pressed his face against the white iron squares and looked down, annoyed. Why all these cars, and where could they be going? The clock pointed to 10:25. Employers were at their offices, children were at their schools and universities, mothers were in their kitchens, he was in his room. So who were all these people, and why might they be going out together?
More than once, it had occurred to him to leave this apartment on account of its bad location and the noise that poured through the window and into his ears. But Andrew—the tall manager with the friendly face—had resisted the idea and tried to dissuade him, suggesting that he move instead to a room on the opposite side. There, he would forget about the street and look down on the beautiful garden in the rear courtyard. Mr. N had hesitated. He wasn’t a person who liked change. Despite being fed up by the noise, he also feared that by leaving this last window of his, he would be leaving the world. For from there he could take the pulse of the outside world and look on God’s creation. He saw the racing of time and the departure of days. He enjoyed the air and the view of the sky. If he ever missed nature, he went down to the hotel garden at night when it was empty and resting. He greeted the plants and their blossoms, he embraced the trees, and he touched the stone benches, inspecting what time had stolen from them. And if his tired body protested, he just went down to the end of the hallway outside his room. He would get a chair, open the window, and sit there, looking out absentmindedly. He actually hated to go out and about. He only left to see his mother. Mr. N moved around inside his lodgings, content with his home and with his guests, which did away with any need for the world beyond.

Mr. N closed the window and dropped the white curtain back into place. The insolent light retreated, the noise came into order, and the road in front of the cars became clear. Mr. N went over to the tea kettle, took a mug that had his name written on it in black ink, poured the tea, and drank. The flavor was strange: the tea was cold and the color of water. No matter. He pulled out the chair and sat back down to his papers. Our beloved Lazarus awoke with the taste of fire in his mouth. He washed his teeth and his tongue and all around inside. He gargled water repeatedly, and still he did not get rid of the taste of fire and decay. He realized his salvation lay in water alone. That is why he loved it so much…

The lead broke under Mr. N’s hand. He eagerly picked it up between his fingertips and placed it in a small plastic yogurt container. He had set aside two such containers, the first of which was completely full, while the second was nearly so. One day he would set about counting them, Mr. N thought enthusiastically, one by one, so he would know how many pencils he had gone through. Then the idea that the lead of each pencil sometimes broke more than once drew him up short. No matter. He would estimate the average number of times that a single pencil broke, and then make a simple calculation to arrive at the approximate number. Mr. N knit his brows in vexation. He liked precision and hated rough approximations. The approximate was arbitrary, the arbitrary was random, the random was chaotic, and the chaotic was a murderous destroyer. He only liked exact precision, like pencils when he sharpened them, giving the tip a point to make its line clear and defined. He couldn’t stand pens. The ink could flood, and it was harsh. Ink behaved like a dictator: ordering, forbidding, controlling, brooking no dissent. Lead, meanwhile, was merciful, quick to forgive mistakes. It saw precisely what the soul was brooding upon. Ink soiled the white page, while lead dissolved above it, exactly as pain dissolved in the act of writing…

Mr. N dropped the pencil from his hand and read what he had written. Why, Lord? Have I done something to displease you?

Sindbad, Actes Sud, France, French, 2021

And Other Stories, United Kingdom, English, 2022

Mister N