Not everything in a story can be named. Sometimes, grass is just grass, not Bermuda or Centipede (Carpetgrass) or Zoysia. The absence of a name creates breathing room — just as in life, we can’t know the names of everyone and everything we pass on the street. It also leaves space for the reader to imagine the grass as her own grass; the same childhood grass that wedged between her toes and prickled, or didn’t, on the bottoms of her feet. Naming creates a distance. As soon as we have a word, we know that the thing is not-me.
But, while a single name can set an object apart from its observer, a proliferation of names can be dense and hypnotic. Rabee Jaber’s The Mehlis Report, trans. Kareem James Abu Zaid and recently published by New Directions, is crammed with names, sometimes two names for a single thing, such as the sleeping drug “Lexotanil (Bromazepam),” or even locations. And not only do we seem to know the names of every restaurant and street in the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood where the protagonist lives, but we also know the brand names in his fridge (“Dairy Day” skim milk, the yoghurt and labneh from “Tanayel Farms” and the kashkawane cheese “Hungary”). The specificity of life is heavy on every page.
This does not, however, lead to readerly confusion, as we are not expected to place more than a handful of names in time and space, as when we must know that Maria and Masha and Mashenka and Mashoolya and Mashishka are all just different ways of relating to a single character, who we must follow with our attention.
With Jaber’s proliferation of names, our attention must be equally everywhere. People are important, but so is “Dairy Day” skim milk. It is as though we are looking at an exceptionally dense painting, where every detail reveals another detail, and even the doll under the child’s arm is grasping another doll, which is holding a small flower — no, sorry, a hyacinth.
The protagonist remembers everything about his city – how the landscape is now, how it was before the Civil War – and he layers those memories on top of the action.
This is not true for the entirety of The Mehlis Report: In part of the book, we disappear into an underground surrealist landscape, a land of the no-longer-living that is somehow part Murakami and part Borges. But while we are in overground Beirut, we are saturated by the names of things; not just Beiruti things, but when the protagonist turns on the television, we also see the news from Sri Lanka and Pakistan and Japan in equally dizzying detail.
Yet Jaber never quite overwhelms the reader, or at least not this one, as — first — the protagonist is yet more overwhelmed by everything that is sitting on his shoulders, so we can share our anxiety with him. He is carrying a hundred or a thousand years of Beirut, at the time that seems to be the city’s end. And — second — just when we might be overwhelmed, we go deep into an underground afterlife-world, tenuously connected to the overground world by cell-phone connection and rats that are allowed to move back and forth.
This place, whatever it is, also has names, but fewer. And peace, here, seems to be the process of forgetting them.