Review: Minor Detail by Adania Shibli (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette)

Reading media about the latest expression of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a bit like going through the looking glass and down a rabbit hole. Every time you think you have a grasp of what’s going on and why, the picture warps. There’s another arcane detail – some agreement, usually made by foreign powers – that turns out to be somehow fundamental. This sense of confusion ultimately works in favour of the occupying Israeli government, which is able to spin a tale of conflict between equals, rather than a process of colonisation.

Cutting through this haziness comes Adania Shibli’s short, seething and immaculate novel Minor Detail, in part about the nature of truth and how our conceptions of it impede our ability to see it clearly. Divided neatly into two halves that mirror each other, but not too perfectly, it starts in the 1949 war in which Israel declared independence and grabbed parts of Palestine, the origins of the contemporary liberation movement. A troop of Israeli soldiers have been sent to the Negev desert to watch over the border with Egypt, and “cleanse it of any remaining Arabs”. They are led by an unnamed soldier, who is haunted by the spiders that crawl around the corners of his hut (one of which bites him, leaving him terribly ill) and howling dogs in the desert. While on patrol, they find a Bedouin girl, and capture her, taking her back to their camp, where they rape and murder her. It’s August 13.

In the second part, an unnamed Palestinian woman in Ramallah – who is also haunted by spiders and howling dogs – reads about the crime in the paper, and becomes obsessed with it, mainly due to the fact that the murder took place exactly 25 years before she was born. This is the “minor detail” of the title. She describes herself as a person who as a problem with borders (she is constantly crossing them unassumingly), who “overreacts” to things that other people take in their stride (although one of those things is having a gun pointed at her at one of the Israeli checkpoints, which seems reasonable). But it is those qualities that drive her to her own investigation into the murder, travelling south into the desert to visit the scene of the crime.

Whether she finds anything is not really the point of this novel. The woman is most interested in “the incident as experienced by the girl”, “the whole truth”, but this may not be possible. Much of the story is conveyed by the writing, the narrative conflict mirroring the wider one. The first part is told in third-person, mimicking the objective language of news reports which so badly fails at conveying the reality and power dynamics of occupation. As Annabelle Lukin writes in The Conversation, “For journalists who who report on this violence on our behalf, there is nowhere to hide. There is no neutral, objective mode”. It is heavy on detail – particularly the commanding soldier’s washing routine. The detail is the point. As the Palestinian woman says:

There was nothing really unusual abut the main details, especially when compared with what happens daily in a place dominated by the roar of occupation and ceaseless killing.

The second part is the opposite, confined to the woman’s head as she navigates the borders, “so many borders, military ones, geographical ones, physical ones, psychological ones, mental ones”. It is nervy, twitchy writing that gives a small insight into what it must be like to be constantly surveilled, to move through country where the maps have been redrawn, erasing the past. Each part on its own is brilliant, evocative writing, but together they starkly cut to the core of what is happening in this part of the Middle East.

Gay rating: not gay

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