Confessions by Rabee Jaber

Author:  Rabee Jaber

The cover to Confessions by Rabee JaberNew York. New Directions. 2016. 120 pages. 

Several artists stand out among the many voices that a new wave of translation has made available to anglophone readers; one of these is the Lebanese writer Rabee Jaber, author of fifteen novels, editor of the weekly cultural supplement of the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayyat, and winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Jaber’s 2005 novel Confessions can now be read in an English translation by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.

After the kidnapping and murder of his son during the civil war, a Beiruti man joins the fighting as a vigilante. While stopping traffic one day at the demarcation line that divides the city in two, he opens fire on a car and kills everyone in it except for a little boy who is the age his son would have been if he’d lived. The man wraps the child in a blanket, takes him home, and raises him as his own, naming him Maroun after the son he has lost. Later, as a university student, Maroun learns the truth about himself from his brother on the eve of their father’s death; and later still, as an adult working for an engineering firm, he tells his life story to a writer named Rabee.

The dreamlike retrospection of Jaber’s digressive prose conveys his motifs—politics, war, identity, eroticism, romantic love, family ties, grief, sensuality, memory, imagination—by way of a narrator who complains that he can’t express himself: “We fell in love, and my mind was running wild, making plans, and running wild some more when she told me (on the upper floor of a patisserie on Mono Street that’s no longer there—she was eating ice cream and I was eating cake) that she couldn’t see me anymore.” Maroun harbors no rage and can’t empathize with his father; and yet he avoids self-pity, because he retrieves images instead of evoking them: he makes up by fortitude what he lacks in depth.

In a March 2016 interview with Epicenter, Kareem James Abu-Zeid suggests that a translation “shouldn’t sound translated,” adding that “if it’s poetry, for example . . . it should sound like something that a good English or American poet would write. And the same thing in a novel.” With Confessions, alongside The Mehlis Report (2015; English translation 2013) and the forthcoming Berytus: An Underground City, Abu-Zeid has made Rabee Jaber’s Beirut part of our imaginary landscape and added him to our constellation of fiction writers.

Erik Noonan
San Francisco

Get the book on Amazon or add it to your Goodreads reading list.

More Reviews