“The Silence and the Roar,” written by the Syrian Nihad Sirees, is a modern-day farce (or so it seems) set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, where the narrator, writer Fathi Sheen, is out of favor with a ludicrous despotic government that demands the preposterous adulation of its populace for “The Leader.” Taking place over the course of a long day, the roar in the novel’s title refers to this unescapable sound of a bizarre routine: the entire populace, in the streets, rallying for the glory of the Leader. Sirees, whose works have been banned in his home country for more than a decade and who has recently fled into exile in Egypt, has fun with the contours of absurdity: “In my country slogans are arranged into lines of rhyming poetry.” Fathi, unsurprisingly, is having no part of this blind-adulation business, which is why he’s out of favor, but he does not seem particularly concerned. Instead, he spends most of his time alternately fascinated by the brainlessness of “the Masses” and searching for solitude in the arms of his equally disengaged lover, Lama. But his mother’s surprising decision to marry a well-connected functionary threatens his low-profile life, as does his inability to turn away from episodes of brutal repression he encounters in the street.
Even in translation, Sirees’ sense of the absurd comes through in clever wordplay framed around sarcastic turns of phrase (“In order to spare him from having to go home and come right back again, they decided to simply keep him there in their dungeons.”) This detached perspective (another time he describes the grammatical mistakes of the Leader as distracting him from his love-making) keeps the whole affair more comical than tragic, and diminishes the terrors of genocide we’ve come to expect from our dictators. In fact, this biting little book is more likely to call to mind the Oceania of George Orwell’s “1984” than the killing fields associated with the likes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi. (The Leader is like the Keystone Kops version of Big Brother; Sacha Baron Cohen’s Third World send-up in the movie “The Dictator” is of a similar, if even more absurd, piece.)
In an afterword, Sirees writes from exile in Egypt with urgency about the uprising in Syria that commenced after he wrote this book and the government’s brutal attempts to repress it. “There is another kind of roar that this author never thought the leader would ever be capable of using: the roar of artillery, tanks and fighter jets that have already opened fire on Syrian cities.” It reads like something of a retraction, that the inanity of the world he depicts in “The Silence and the Roar” is not so funny anymore. But Sirees need not apologize for his fine novel; even in times such as these, the road to cultural understanding and peace is paved with stones of many types. (Brian Hieggelke)
“The Silence and the Roar”
By Nihad Sirees
Other Press, 160 pages, $13.95