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  • John Diamond-Nigh

Sex and faith in old Beirut

What am I reading now, in this rotting suffix to an election? I am reading about chairs, those neutral, pragmatic, extravagant forms that, as a rule, resist politicization. I am reading what poets say about autumn––November is the Norway of the year––also not easily politicized. What can autumn persecute? And, in manuscript form, a novel by a friend, due out in several months. In the novel, an American adolescent, living in Bulgaria, must leave Bulgaria. The Nazis again. He must leave an older lover, the deepest wrench of his eviction. His family first goes to Aleppo, then finds itself in Istanbul. (The Atlantic now is too dangerous to return to America.) Still, he’s enchanted. Small boats thread their wakes across the Golden Horn, old wooden mansions hover at the water’s edge. Nightfall is perfume. The novel is almost like Hemingway. Spare, devoid of metaphor, except for an archangel and Satan himself who seek to beguile the boy with their respective appeals. The former chastens him for his concupiscence, the latter thinks it’s healthy. So the inversion begins: the Christian angel becomes dubiously satanic and Satan becomes sympathetic. Essentially human. The family moves to Beirut, where the boy’s parents teach in an English school.

Back, for a moment, to Aleppo. While there, the boy, Ben, had been invited to travel in an army truck that was making a delivery to a remote village located where the Garden of Eden once had stood. Now it’s a shabby broadcast of huts. But Satan reminds him, while there, of his primordial benevolence, as laid out in Genesis. That tree. That endowment of choice.

The shape of the novel itself is unusual. The plot is a thin, inelastic, ascetic line, tasting, as I said, a bit like Hemingway. Even like Cormac McCarthy. Opposites cling to this line like fruit. Religious purity; adolescent fornication. The small, fragrant evil of, say, Baudelaire and the colossal evil of political and religious tyranny as it spreads across Europe, Africa and the East. The massacres, the trains, the camps. The pins on his father’s map change location each day. But the plot remains a quiet line, a fictional equilibrium.

Of course, since sex is a tide in the book, Ben meets Mireille while watching Casablanca in a theater downtown. Mireille is French. Her father is a colonel. They cycle out of Beirut to an orchard where they share a picnic. She brings baguettes, he brings Coca Cola. They talk about Baudelaire, about D.H. Lawrence. They play lightly at being siblings (incest) and at being each others’ erotic subordinates. They give proper names to their genitals.

Not at once, but in time the two make love. Martin Amis insists that novelists should avoid three topics: dreams, sex and religion. Maybe so, but here in the voluptuous shade of an orange grove just outside Beirut how could sex not be incandescent. In art, we call it orientalisme. That fragrant, shadowy, vivid world of the Arab near East. Just one more contrarian pair bundled to that austere stem of a line: on one side, the America of his upbringing paired with the unutterable biblical loveliness of Beirut, these picnics, this sex, this enchantment. He’ll hate to leave. The persuasions, even existence, of the archangel are dwindling. Together the two kids read Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, so akin to the silken ambiguities of this city. This hyper-garden.

That’s where I am, still half of the book to read. The title includes the word transgression. The transgression of living in a country not your own; the transgression of atrocity; the transgression of sex and of simply growing up. Perhaps the deepest transgression – a boy saying no to the norms of his parents’ faith, electing to embrace the darkness and light in a far more fertile affinity than merely that of virtue and vice.

Are we tired of the the opportunistic scapegoating, the rotting pieties, the choral fundamentalism of media and politics? Here’s another notion; here’s a book for you.

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