The Fiction of Isolation

This story is included in these collections
Muhammad al-Idrisi's map of Syria, Palestine, Sinai (Tabula Rogeriana)

“Peace on earth, good will toward men,” we sing this Christmas season, echoing the words of the heavenly host in announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds.

This year I read a lot of fiction set in war zones, where that message of God’s mercy shining on the world can be especially hard to hear. Although they confirm the arbitrariness, ugliness, and distorting violence of war, these stories most of all speak to the very need for stories, and how, through the communal nature of storytelling, humanity is restored to the wounded.

Zeyn Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars (Atria Books, $16.99, 384 pp.) tells the story of Nour, a Syrian-American girl whose mother moves their family from Manhattan back to Homs after the death of Nour’s father. The year is 2011, the civil war has just begun, and in the first fighting a bomb destroys their house. Soon the family is fleeing across the Middle East and North Africa in search of safety. There is danger all along the way: threats of physical and sexual violence, the risk of drowning in a leaky boat or suffocating in the back of a truck heading to some country where no one seems to want them.

Nour’s narrative is interspersed with snippets of a fantastical bedtime tale she remembers her father telling her: that of Rawiya, a girl living in the twelfth century who apprentices herself to the real-life mapmaker Muhammad al-Idrisi. Together Rawiya and al-Idrisi chart the Mediterranean coast and outwit their nemeses, from rival armies to a monstrous bird of prey. Retelling this story to herself throughout the flight from Syria, Nour hopes that somehow her father will hear it and be comforted as well.

Joukhadar’s writing is lovely and lyrical, and for Nour she has found a voice that is almost mythical. Searching for kindness and belonging, Nour and her family hope for a land to call home in a region disfigured by forces outside their control. All they have, Nour learns, are their stories—the things that tie them to the past, and to each other.

War destroys community and isolates individuals in their fear.

The first scene in Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo (Riverhead, $21, 256 pp.) is based on a real event. During the siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990s, twenty-two people were killed by a bomb as they waited outside a bakery. Trying to restore some humanity to a city under attack, the cellist Vedran Smailović risked sniper fire to play, in full tuxedo, on the street where the bomb went off, every day for twenty-two days.  

Galloway uses this event to follow three fictional characters through the “mortar-pocked, sniper-infested” city as they try not only to survive, but also to hang onto the people they were before the war. Kenan is a father and husband who must make the dangerous journey to get water for his family; Dragan is an older man who wonders whether his happy memories of Sarajevo before the war are anything more than an illusion. Perhaps most compelling is Arrow, a university student who became a sniper at the outset of the conflict and has become more accustomed to killing than she thought possible. She gives herself the name Arrow to shield the memory of her old self from the tool of war she has become: “Using her real name would make her no different from the men she kills. It would be a death greater than the end of her life.” She is tasked with protecting the cellist—and in doing so, denying a victory to those “trying to kill the city” by stamping out anything that might bring peace to its inhabitants. Galloway’s writing is sparse and no-nonsense, as stark as the hollowed-out buildings and empty streets he describes. He writes in the present tense, seeming to erase the characters’ sense of past and future just as war does. When a sniper chooses to fire on someone, “[t]hose left are robbed of not only a fellow citizen but the memory of what it was to be alive in a time before men on the hills shot at you while you tried to cross the street.”

War destroys community and isolates individuals in their fear. The cellist, on the other hand, acts as “an instrument of deliverance,” drawing people from their isolation to an experience of communal consolation and beauty. The people whom Galloway depicts have been beaten down by years of war, but they try individually and together to retain what makes them human. (After I finished The Cellist of Sarajevo, I learned that Galloway had been fired from his position at the University of British Columbia after several allegations of sexual harassment. He has admitted to having an affair with a student, but denies the harassment charges.)

Phil Klay’s Redeployment (Penguin Books, $16, 304 pp.), a collection of intensely researched short stories about the Iraq War, has been compared to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried for its ability to show the psychological and existential destruction done to human souls in war. Redeployment’s twelve narrators are active-duty and veterans, front-line soldiers and desk grunts, morticians, chaplains, and others who try not to feel broken in circumstances that threaten to break them.

Klay, a veteran of the Iraq War himself, feels the urgency of telling stories. In a New York Times op-ed, he recounts the time a well-meaning civilian told him, “I could never imagine what you’ve been through.” But something is missing if this is how we think of the military, or of war. Klay writes, “If we fetishize trauma as incommunicable then survivors are trapped—unable to feel truly known by their nonmilitary friends and family.” A soldier’s experience might be hard to hear or understand, Klay admits, but “what if I want you to?”

Redeployment can read like a catalog of despair: the constant risk of brutal death in the form of IEDs and sniper fire; self-hatred and suicide; cover-ups of abuse by soldiers; the desire to mutilate, torture, or kill civilians and combatants that creeps into soldiers’ psyches. Klay’s stories are not pretty, and each takes a slightly different approach to the horror of violence.

I’ll focus on one. “Prayer in the Furnace” is told from the perspective of a Catholic chaplain trying to “spiritually minister to men who are still being assaulted” by their everyday experiences, sinking further into anger, hopelessness, and hatred. He writes in his journal, “I see mostly normal men, trying to do good, beaten down by horror, by their inability to quell their own rages…their desire to be tougher, and therefore crueler, than their circumstance.”

Where is God in all of this? “If God is real,” the chaplain thinks, the promise of heaven isn’t enough. “There must be some consolation on earth as well. Some grace. Some evidence of mercy.” He and the other soldiers await this consolation, wondering if it will come. In a homily, the chaplain tells the congregation that as Christians, “We are part of a long tradition of suffering. We can let it isolate us if we want, but we must realize that isolation is a lie.”

Perhaps it is that lie that God meant to dispel by entering the world. With Jesus’ birth we are written into a story of love and salvation, made whole again in community with one another, and with him.

Regina Munch is an assistant editor at Commonweal.

This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Books
Collections