A coiled hose, a howling dog, terebinth trees, soap suds, the smell of petrol on human skin. These details are so subtly embedded in part one of Minor Detail (Text) that when they recur in part two they gain a holographic glow. Palestinian Adania Shibli’s cinematic novel stages a return of the repressed on a national scale by reprising an atrocity committed by Israeli soldiers in the Negev region in 1949. In 2003, Israeli newspaper Haaretz used newly unclassified army documents to uncover the crime: “In August 1949 an IDF unit caught a Bedouin girl, held her captive in a Negev outpost, gang-raped her, executed her at the order of the platoon commander and buried her in a shallow grave in the desert.” After a secret trial the commander was jailed and 19 soldiers received light sentences. “On the first night the soldiers abused her,” reported the commander, “and the next day I saw fit to remove her from the world.”
Shibli reimagines this event from two viewpoints. Part one unfolds over four days in August, 1949. From a cool distance we follow the commander as he orders his soldiers to detain the girl, then collectively vote on her fate. In his hut, feverish from an insect bite and compulsively washing, he unravels. Shibli’s third novel is an unflinching account of violence and dehumanisation, and J.M. Coetzee’s endorsement might alert us to the tradition in which this exceptional writer is working – except that Shibli breaks new ground.
Her masterstroke is to abruptly change tone, setting part two in the present, where a young woman from Ramallah undertakes her own investigation into the crime. This perspective shift reminds us of the continuing violence in Palestine, where our unnamed narrator lives and works with the ceaseless noise of warplanes, shelling, ambulances and military sirens. Obsessed with a “minor detail” in the account of the atrocity that “will stay with me forever; in spite of myself and how hard I try to forget it”, she borrows an identity card, hires a car and packs competing maps of the territory’s changing borders and settlements. After passing through several checkpoints, each time growing more terrified that her identity will be discovered, our narrator reaches the site of the murder. Why does it haunt her? A less skilful writer might have reproduced the lurid details from the press, but those reports relied solely on what the soldiers disclosed. Shibli instead uses a lyrical, intensely sensory mode to describe how we identify with figures from the past, and especially the restless dead. She reprises the howling dog, the trees, the hose, the petrol stench. Now more potent, now spectral, these motifs link past and present.
Shibli’s protagonist is in the mould of literature’s obsessives. Coetzee calls her “profoundly self-absorbed” and “high on the autism scale”. But this doesn’t address the way external conditions – life under occupation, being repeatedly held at gunpoint – are the likely cause of her agitation. She’s foolhardy, apologetic, a stutterer, unable to “evaluate situations rationally”. At every checkpoint, she experiences “the barrier of fear, fashioned from fear of the barrier”. Ultimately, she resists self-absorption by seeking justice – however minor, however private – through her rash act of witnessing. Minor Detail refuses the commander’s “I saw fit to remove her from the world”, by restoring an unnamed Bedouin girl to history. It is brutal, hypnotic and haunting.
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