Review: Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé

Sky Holmes 28 October 2014

The key to human nature that Marx found in wealth and Freud in sex, Bertrand Russell found in power. One of his seminal works, Power, seeks to counter the totalitarian desire to dominate. Writing in the late 1930s, Russell was affected by how Europe was being torn apart by extremist ideologies and when war, or talk of war, was everywhere. The world of Kamal Jann, the eponymous protagonist (if a protagonist can exist in such a complex, corrupt world) of Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé’s latest novel, is not dissimilar to the world Russell saw and studied. That world is, of course, the world we inhabit.

Kamal Jann’s New York life as a middle-aged lawyer and human rights activist is continually ravaged by the presence of his Machiavellian uncle, Sayf Eddine. Sayf is the epitome of power; he is the head of Syria’s intelligence services, he abused his power over Kamal to sexually abuse the young boy, and he ordered the murder of Kamal’s parents. Sayf’s methods of obtaining and retaining power, largely through torture and murder, is set against the powerlessness of the Syrian people and the broken body of the war-torn country, as well as the broken, forever-a-boy never-a-man figure of Kamal.

When Kamal’s brother, who remains in Syria, becomes radicalised, eventually agreeing to become a martyr in a suicide bombing intended to kill the Syrian president, Kamal travels back to Syria, and back to the site of his childhood in a tour de force that clashes his personal present and his past, as well as colliding an ancient history with a cyclically Nietzschean present of eternal recurrence, whereby every turn of the wheel seems to throw off an ‘Islamism’ further from the hub of Islam. Kamal plans to save his brother from extremism while avenging the murders of his parents, and he attempts to do so by entering a Faustian pact with, of all organisations, the CIA.

As Kamal’s life comes to be seen as the life of Syria, the life of Syria comes to be embroiled in the life of a conspiratorial, contested world of murky pasts and double-crossings. Mossad gets a mention, with a British agent in the pay of Sayf deferring to the Israelis; a CIA chief crops up who deceives his own agent, as does a conflicted Saudi family, the Ben Zad’s.

Betrayal is everywhere, domestic, international, you name it, and sometimes the side stories of this immense web lack detail and depth of explanation. Like the wall-sized interactive maps of intelligence services, the narrative buzzes, zooms in and out of various locales: Damascus, Beirut, Tel Aviv, New York and Paris all slip and slide in and out (often quite messily and always oozing with corruption) of the focus of the cinematic, closely cropped writing that always fixes the eye of its lens back onto Syria.

As the powers that be are shown to be powerless in obtaining peace for Syria, often facilitating balkanization among Arabs, Palestinians, and Islamists, Kamal Jann struggles to find and control power (Jann in Arabic means to have gone mad) as the people who are to help him quickly become overwhelming symptoms of his madness. In a sense, power and the loss of power are presented as an illness; Syria itself can be likened to an ill, injured or disabled book: “For thirty years, Sayf Eddine had held and read the country like an open book. Today, the book was in tatters. Some pages were missing. Others were in the wrong order.”, and Eddé’s novel could be described in a similar manner.

Kamal Jann is bustling and overly-busy, and the order does, at times, feel strained and chaotic; there are too many fingers in one pie but its bustling is like that of outside influences in a countries future, bustling like a market place or presidential parade before the bomb, bustling like the HQ’s of the CIA’s and the Mossad’s of this world; and bustling like the flawed, perfect mind of Kamal Jann, part-victim, part-hero, torn apart by power.

Kamal Jann is a strong, powerful novel of authentic insight whose details are often not detailed enough. Translated into English from the French by Ros Schwartz the dialogue loses little of its frequent wit or rawly worded imagery.