In Adania Shibli’s third novel, a young Arab woman is raped and murdered by Israeli troops in 1949. The difficulty of portraying the atrocity lies at the heart of a highly sophisticated narrative that pitilessly explores the limits of empathy and the desire to right (or write) historical wrongs by giving voice to the voiceless.
Shibli, a Palestinian writer based in Berlin, starts with an account of an Israeli platoon setting up camp at the desert border with Egypt. Long, uneventful days are broken when a patrol unit stumbles upon a group of nomads and instantly shoots them dead. “The soldiers moved through the spot of green surrounded by endless, barren sand dunes, combing the area for weapons... They found no weapons.”
While the impassivity of the language generates a measure of dark humour, it’s mainly a source of between-the-lines horror. Focusing on action, with no room for thoughts or feelings, or even names, the novel’s third-person narration sticks to the viewpoint of the officer in charge, with barely any speech, and none that isn’t his. The language, as light on judgment as a stage direction, is highly disconcerting. In Elisabeth Jaquette’s translation from the original Arabic, events are recorded minutely but without emotion, not least when the officer seizes the only survivor, a young woman, and takes her back to the camp: “He brought his left hand back and held her by the throat, closed his right hand into a fist, and flung it at her face. After that the girl did not move... Then he lifted her shirt above the chest and lay his body on top of hers.”
Halfway through, the novel loosens up to give us the first-person testimony of a nervy insomniac (also unnamed) in present-day Ramallah. Haunted by a newspaper report on the crimes we’ve just read about, she’s unable to shake off the idea of somehow telling the story from the victim’s point of view – a project that leads her to embark on a risky road trip south, through long-razed villages, towards a site well beyond the zone permitted by her ID card.
While this more conversational segment generates suspense about the novel’s wider purpose, interest also lies in its portrait of everyday life under occupation: what it’s like, say, when soldiers blow up the building next to your office to get at targets hiding inside, and you find yourself bothered most of all by the dust blowing on to your desk.
Ultimately, the attempt to restore agency to someone we’ve seen previously described as a “still-moaning black mass”, heard only screaming in a language unknown to her persecutors, proves a dead end. The road trip meanders from detour to false trail before juddering to a shockingly abrupt halt; with a key role played by a pack of chewing gum, the title takes on the air of a cruel joke, in a climax that only underlines further how swiftly and cheaply life can be taken in the name of self-defence.
From one point of view, you might see the narrator’s fate as a lesson in how trying to tell stories of suffering boils down to privilege she doesn’t have. But the novel casts doubt on the enterprise in any case, which even seems quixotic or, at times, plain whimsical. In the end, the only view we have of the story comes from the perspective of the perpetrator, chillingly unmoved, depending on whether or not you’re prepared to get symbolic about the poker-faced descriptions of his ablutions that occupy much of the novel’s first half.
At one point, the narrator tries to talk herself out of her search, thinking there’s “no point in me feeling responsible for [the victim], like she’s a nobody, and will forever remain a nobody whose voice nobody will hear”. That isn’t a comfortable place to be left, but Minor Detail suggests anything else might be little more than wish fulfilment.
• Minor Detail by Adania Shibli (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette) is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (£10.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15