REVIEW: “The Darwinist” by Diaa Jubaili

Review of Diaa Jubaili, “The Darwinist”, Strange Horizons 30 Oct. 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

It’s inevitable when writing regular reviews of a publication that a reviewer will find a story that doesn’t resonate with her. “The Darwinist” is one of those stories for me.

Set in 20th century Iraq, the story tells of the birth of Shafiq, a boy with a furry, banana-shaped birthmark and the son of a reviled Darwinist. After leaping back in time to discuss the boy’s father, the story then tells of Shafiq’s adulthood, searching for a banana to give his pregnant wife, and how that search ends in tragedy.

When I say “the story tells,” I do mean tells. “The Darwinist” has a distinctly newspaper-like quality to it as it lays out the events of Shafiq’s life. It maintains a birds-eye view, never taking the time to deeply explore any of the characters or moments it discusses. There’s little dialogue or opportunity to show the story. Instead, it reads like a synopsis of a novel without much plot (save for the banana search that takes up the last third).

It’s entirely possible that this story is meant as an allegory, and I’m missing some political or cultural connotations that would give it greater emotional depth (it is told in translation from Arabic). But as it is, the narrative distance from the characters and the lack of a clear direction for the early plot kept me from fully engaging with the story.

REVIEW: “The Worker” by Diaa Jubaili

Review of Diaa Jubaili, Andrew Leber (trans.), “The Worker”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 61-80 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This story is two distinct halves stitched together into one story by their shared narrator. In the first half, our unidentified narrator tells us about what life is like, 100 years into the future, and it is a strange collection of facts. Measles has not yet been eradicated, and AIDS is still prevalent — but antibiotics are still viable. At some point in the past automata replaced many ordinary workers, but these automata are now broken and nonviable. World War Three happened about 20 years previously, and the fall-out of climate change and war has wreaked havoc on society. There is slavery. There is cannibalism. But there is also the Governor, who employs clerks to search through history to provide him with examples of calamaties, atrocities, horrors, tragedies, and catastrophes. From these he composes his sermons which indulge in the very strange sort of reasoning that is often known as the ‘Pain Olympics’ — surely his people cannot be that badly off, since many other people in history have had it much, much worse.

In this first half, we have no idea who the narrator is, nor who the titular worker is. This is addressed in the second half, where it turns out that they are one and the same. But the worker is no ordinary worker, and it is only towards the end of the story that we find out that he is not just a worker but The Worker, the essence of the ordinary every day working man captures in concrete and made into a statue. His history is recounted, as well as his present context, until the story ends, quite abruptly, without any clear resolution.

Tales told from the point of view inanimate objects are often listed on journal wish-lists. But they are hard to write without unduly anthropomorphising the object, or having to tell some tortuous story about how it is this unconscious, inanimate thing can even have a point of view. This story simply entirely ignores the question of how the statue is a position to be able to tell us a story, and also simply cares nothing at all about whether it is being too anthropomorphic. This blithe disregard is noteworthy because it is perhaps the clearest speculative element of the story: It is just taken for granted that this type of narrator and narration is possible without feeling any need to explain or justify this possibility.

The story is well-populated with informative footnotes (you know how much I love an informative footnote — especially when one of them is such that I can feel very smug because I didn’t need it, I know who ibn Khaldun is, thank you very much). There was one moment of frustration though: Footnote 5 appears on p. 65. Footnote 7 appears on p. 72. When one flips to the end of the story, one finds that there are only 6 footnotes: And the content of footnote 6 does not match the sentence footnoted 7. Footnote 6 actually turns up on p. 77, but we are left forever in the dark as to what footnote 7 was intended to be.