PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
'The stories are funny, satirical, absurd, serious and surrealistic, but they make they make their point both about the repression in a strict Muslim society but, more particularly, about the horrors of the political situation in Libya where civilians are the main victim. The book is short so it won’t take you long to read and it will be well worth it.'
'Each story in Catalogue of a Private Life by Libyan author Najwa Bin Shatwan navigates a topic that feels resonant with our modern, more intimate understanding of worldwide worries. Strong images abound, stirring up questions: what can we as individuals do to help the collective good? Passing, almost trivial statements stick in the mind – the first story (of eight) in Catalogue Of A Private Life includes the gem, “White socks were naturally a great measure at how fashionable a man was or how noble.” The dinkus is used to denote transitions through time, much like a film shifting through events. Another story, The Irresponsible Director, speaks volumes about the role food has in narratives: everyday observations that will likely strike a chord with us in their minutiae.
In Catalogue of a Private Life, Bin Shatwan writes complex characters into stories that create a unique space to explore the rich tapestry of human behaviour, of lives from a place that a Westerner such as myself may find difficult to fully comprehend. An air of religious sobriety underlines almost surreal scenarios – here, fictional elements are believable if you hold them within a heightened world built on truth.'
Book of the month selection.
Catalog of a Private Life by Najwa Bin Shatwan is a small but mighty collection of stories dissecting the evils of war. In spite of such a weighty theme, it is funny and refreshing to read.
The collection was originally published by Dar Atha in 2018. Dedalus books, a British publisher known for experimental writing, published the English edition, translated by Sawad Hussain, last year. The collection of eight stories is petit, comes up to less than 100 pages. Shatwan is an accomplished author. She has published three critically acclaimed novels, placed her stories in culture-defining anthologies, and received many literary honors. In 2017, she became the first Libyan to be shortlisted for the International Award for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).
The first story is titled “The Burglar in White Socks.” It tells the story of a burglar who falls from the roof of a house full of women and turns their world upside down. The titular story “Catalogue of a Private Life” is about a general focusing on preparing for war rather than actually fighting a war. In the story “Conventions for the Protection of Pestles,” a father identifies missiles as they wheeze past his family waiting in line for diesel. Then he thinks about how much such a missile would mean to a copper merchant who found its remains after explosions. In the collection, war is a part of daily life in ways that shape the sights, sounds, fantasies, and livelihood of the characters. War also infiltrates the dreams of characters in the most bizarre way, as in “The Young Cow Crossed the Field.” In the story, a man dreams of a cow that begins to speak Arabic after eating newspaper and books. He is haunted by visions of this cow in his dreams. First the cow can speak in Arabic. Then the cow appears in his dreams in the form of a fighter jet and then a missile.
Shatwan writes beautifully. Her style is pared down to bare essentials. No flowery excess. I found it fascinating that the spareness of the language actually made the stories otherworldly and captivating. The stories read like parables with extra layers of surrealist strangeness and political critique. This quality makes the stories alluring, brings a touch of magic that pulls the reader into a world where animals have a mind of their own and objects have intentions.
Underneath this stylistic ingenuity is a powerful critique of how war normalizes violence and desensitizes a culture to destruction. Following Muammar Gaddafi’s ascension to power, Libya was thrown into a series of civic unrest and communities subjected to everyday aggression from the state. Shatwan asks the reader to think about what this kind of prolonged exposure to violence can do to a society. Characters attempt to lead life, business-as-usual, in the midst of war or in spite of being haunted by memories of war and end up exhibiting signs of trauma.
For some of you reading this review, Catalogue of a Private Life might be your first encounter with Libyan writing. Hopefully, Shatwan’s work inspires you to dig deeper into Libyan literature.
'Shatwan’s power comes in her ability to say so much with so few words, the impact of her fiction imbedded in reality and truth. The suffering of her characters who live ordinary lives is pushed to the fore as they live the best they know how. Her dialogue and context, which transports and transforms, such as the hopeful cinematographer who enjoys understanding different professions because they are “reincarnation” in a way, shows that her characters love life and all aspects of it. In a world that is unpredictable, Shatwan graces readers with eight ordinary stories with extraordinary insight.'
'Catalogue of a Private Life compiles eight stories that illuminate the effects of civil war on Libyan society. The stories, originally published in Arabic in 2018, often touch on the absurd while examining the brittle lines between betrayal and loyalty, cruelty and tenderness.'
No. of pages: 96
Publication date: 03.12.2021
Re-print date: 03.12.2021
978 1 912868 72 8
978 1 912868 88 9
Dedalus World English