One of my most powerful reading experiences came from a college course I took on postcolonial literature. I was 20 and my reading history had been intensely and entirely personal: I read books in order to escape, to identify with characters and to make sense of my life.
But once you’ve read Salman Rushdie or the late Chinua Achebe, you are no longer allowed to define personal experience in such private terms. You encounter characters whose ties to land, nation and history are just as intimate as their relationships with their mothers. You understand that politics are just as vital a force as romance.
In Nihad Sirees’ The Silence and the Roar, we encounter a world that forces us to walk alongside characters whose lives have been irreparably bent by dictatorship. The country, unnamed in the novel, is an echo of Sirees’ native Syria. The novel’s main character, Fathi Chin, is a novelist whose writings have been silenced by his government, all because he did not want to host a short story contest honoring the virtues of “the Leader.”
And who is the Leader? He goes unnamed as well, but his attributes are familiar: despotic, self-absorbed, obsessed with watching daily marches in which his citizens process hysterically, waving flags, unknowingly trampling others underfoot.
The novel opens with such a parade and with our narrator’s weary, sarcastic observations of the event: “It (was) eight thirty, even though the hubbub in the street made it seem as though the day were already half gone.”
Sirees’ novel makes us approach love and peace on different terms.
“Silence” and “roar” are two interchangeable phenomena in the novel, two kinds of action that permeate the country’s emotional landscape. The “roar” comes in many forms: the songs of praise honoring the Leader, warbling out from radios and television sets at all times of the day; the intense clamor of the people as they march, megaphones in hand. But what feels deadlier is the silence, the peace of mind Fathi tries to cultivate in a place where “the roar produced by the chants and the megaphones eliminates thought … a crime against the leader.”
And because Fathi tries to create literature - tries to capture the personal experiences of people through words - he is seen as a threat, as someone who needs to be silenced.
Sirees’ novel captures the mood and energy of a country under totalitarian regime, where fear and bureaucracy turn Fathi’s life into a labyrinth of deadening experiences. A young man is nearly beaten to death by government guards outside Fathi’s flat; a young woman collapses and dies on Fathi’s shoulder during the daily parade for the Leader; a government lackey proposes to Fathi’s mother and gives Fathi an “opportunity” that, if refused, means a deadly kind of silence for the narrator.
The novel’s prose, like its narrator, is stark, ironic and straight-forward. He looks for pleasure and meaning in his sexual relationship with his girlfriend Lama and in the quiet freedom of his own mind. Fathi’s experiences mirror those of Siree, whose work has been banned in Syria by the government. He has been living in exile for the past year and The Silence and the Roar is one of his first English translations.
“I believe that love and peace are the right way to confront tyranny,” writes Sirees in the novel’s epilogue. If this is true, then Sirees’ novel makes us approach love and peace on different terms. The Silence and the Roar gives readers the opportunity to do more than feel sorry for its characters, but to recognize that sympathy and self-identification are not the only goals of reading. The novel forces its readers to wrangle with its tone, its subject matter and its echoes of a real political roar, one that forces us to reconsider the ways in which tyranny affects us all. It is a helpful reminder for North American Christians, who may be tempted to read for only an individual benefit. Sirees’ novel can, and should, challenge us to expand our definition of what is personal, and move us to hear the stories of those whose lives are altered by the impact of political strife.