Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that contemplates what it means to accept your past.
It is 2010. Kamal Jann, a successful, middle-aged lawyer and human rights activist, lives in New York City. He is tormented by the horrors that he suffered at the hands of his uncle, Sayf, the powerful head of Syria’s intelligence services. Sayf began sexually molesting Kamal when the boy was twelve years old, and three years later, Sayf ordered the murders of Kamal’s mother and father (the latter of whom was Sayf’s only sibling). Kamal’s hatred for his uncle is compounded by the fact that he later allows Sayf to sponsor his college and law school education in the United States. Murad, Kamal’s brother, remains in Syria and becomes radicalized, eventually agreeing to become a martyr in a suicide bombing intended to kill the Syrian president. Kamal learns of Murad’s intentions and travels back to Syria in an attempt to save his brother and, at the same time, avenge the murders of his parents.
The fraught politics of the Middle East pervade Eddé’s novel, with the dysfunctional relationship between Lebanon and Syria taking center stage. CIA operatives and European experts machinate with Arab business, political and religious leaders, each trying to advance their respective agendas while at the same time facilitating discord and balkanization among Arabs, Palestinians, and Islamists.
The novel’s large cast of diverse, female characters are drawn with rich detail, and perhaps the most entertaining parts of the book concern two women in particular, the American Kate Man and the Lebanese Sitt Soussou. Kate is a married, Manhattan socialite who is in love with Kamal. An aesthete who makes supreme and constant efforts to surround herself with the most fashionable artists and intellectuals, Kate’s purpose consists largely to serve as a reflection for the tastes and opinions of those around her. Kate speaks with a stammer, perhaps a handicap, but more likely an affectation:
She wants to be certain, before speaking, that she has protected herself from what she does not know. Her oh, oh, more or less equals the time it takes her to check. When she speaks, time no longer counts. Her continuous bass drone enjoys an unlimited entitlement to signs, hesitation and pauses. It is like at the opera—the meaning of the words, essential as it may be, is utterly secondary. It is her tone that speaks—an anxious, panicked tone, but always demanding, superior.
Although her superficiality might appear harmless, her obsession with Kamal leads her to cunning tactics in an effort to obtain his affections and displace the woman he loves.
The ninety-year-old Sitt Soussou possesses all of the self-confidence that Kate lacks. She is regarded as a “historical monument” in both her native Beirut and in Damascus, and her counsel is valued by her son-in-law, Sayf. She and Sayf both possess a ruthless solidity when it comes to political expediency and self-preservation. Sitt Soussou doesn’t hold her tongue, and her witticisms, which really come alive under Ros Schwartz’s skillful translation, are some of the most entertaining parts of the novel:
When the deceased is someone important, people come back two or three times. Didn’t you hear all the people who said “see you tomorrow” as they left? There’s nothing better than a death for bringing together the living. You have to make an effort, go back again, insist. That’s why three visits are better than one. But unlike condolence visits which are clear and precise—everyone knows their place—visits to the sick are painful, unbearable. You inconvenience people, you inconvenience yourself, you don’t know when is the right time to visit, you don’t know when to leave. Not to mention the fact that the sick person gets used to your visits, “You do me good, come back and see me,” etc. Oh no, none of that! I like people who ask nothing of me. The dead don’t ask anything. Then it’s a pleasure to go back.
The novel’s denouement occurs during a dinner party hosted by Kamal, and this baggy, overly-long scene is one of this novel’s very few weak parts. Additionally, in a book populated by so many characters, the fortune teller La Bardolina and a few others feel like “extras,” adding little to the story.
In Kamal Jann the struggle for control is an overarching theme: Sayf, a man with seeming limitless power, cannot control his political fate; Kate is unable to make Kamal love her; and, no single country or faction is able to dictate its political solution for the Middle East. For Kamal, whose consuming rage and need to avenge Sayf’s crimes ultimately push him to the breaking point, it is only when he acknowledges that he cannot control the past that his descent into madness is arrested. Umm Assem, the Syrian woman who raised the orphaned Kamal and Murad, tells the story of the eagle that flew above its shadow, and thinking its shadow was prey, tried to capture it. She tells Kamal that the shadow cannot be possessed. And, as Kamal struggles to accept, neither can his past.