JUNE 21, 2020
ADANIA SHIBLI’S SLIM NOVEL Minor Detail is an intense and penetrating work about the profound impact of living with violence, whether it occurred in the past or contemporaneously. The novel is written in two parts: the first is set in August 1949, a year after the Nakba, as an Israeli officer oversees the clearing of the Negev Desert and the establishment of the border with Egypt. While undertaking routine patrol, some soldiers encounter a group of Arabs and immediately kill the men in the group. They bring the one young woman back to camp with them, and though the officer appears to consider how to keep her safe, she is repeatedly gang raped and eventually murdered. In the second section, set apparently in the present day, an unnamed woman reads about the crime in the newspaper, and for reasons she cannot quite understand, feels compelled to try and find out what happened, using only some maps of the area to guide her.
For the unnamed woman narrator in the second part, the crime we read in the first catches her eye because of the date it occurs on: August 13, her birthday. For her, descriptions and reports of war crimes are unsettlingly banal: “Incidents like that aren’t out of the ordinary, or, let us say, they happen in contexts like this. In fact, they happen so often that I’ve never paid them much attention before.” Though she is aware that her interest in this story because of its date might seem like “pure narcissism,” noticing that detail becomes “the only way to arrive at the truth and definitive proof of its existence.” Shibli’s description of the import of a “detail” is fascinating, as she compares it to the minute strokes on a painting that function as a kind of authorial signature. Art historians can tell a forgery by the omission of these strokes; her subject of interest is the history of the place where she lives, a history she has been denied by systematic erasure, and which she now cannot see as true.
The question of omission is crucial to this book, as the woman decides to travel to the area where the crime occurred and to visit local archives and museums, in the hope of finding some trace of the girl. But the history she looks for does not exist, partially because what she’s looking for is not evidence of the “minor detail” as she puts it, but a whole history of the people who have lived on the land. She wanders around the Israel Defense Forces History Museum, looking at the displays and exhibits from the 1948 war, which include objects such as uniforms, jerry cans, and soap. All of these objects were mentioned in the first part, and were used by the Israeli officer we follow, but they in no way bear record to the actions of the soldiers who used them. Later, she gives a ride to an old woman in her car, but cannot find it in herself to ask the woman about the incident she traveled to find out about. Only after she leaves the car does she realize the chance she missed: “How clumsy! It was she, not the military museums or the settlements and their archives, who might hold a detail that could help me uncover the incident as experienced by the girl. And finally arrive at the whole truth.” But what can this truth really be? This is the central problem around which the whole novel turns: that this desire to find out information is unlikely to yield any actual answers.
What’s more, the physical routes that the woman takes on her journey toward this knowledge are riddled with problems. In an early section, she explains the difficulty of the moving around the place where she lives and works: “The borders imposed between things here are many. One must pay attention to them, and navigate them, which ultimately protects everyone from perilous consequences.” We see this played out as she drives between areas and finds it hard to orient herself in her surroundings; the vividness of the desert landscapes are contrasted with their differentiating representations on the maps she has brought with her. In the first section, the Israeli officer is helping to establish the space the woman in the second section will drive through. In using different maps to plot her movements, she finds that they reveal very different things: the official map of the area tells her what’s there now, but her older maps from ’48, and pre-’48, tell her of what used to be. As she looks at the names of Palestinian villages, she recognizes some but “the majority of the names are unfamiliar to me, to the extent that they invoke a feeling of estrangement.” The roads themselves tell another story: “I’m no longer sure where I am. I can’t tell whether I’ve taken this road before, as I thought first, or not. The road I’d been familiar with until a few years ago was narrow and winding, while this one is quite wide and straight.” As towns are destroyed and checkpoints built, actually being able to understand or visualize the area is almost impossible. Shibli demonstrates that maps themselves can never be apolitical, but are there to assert particular ways of reading the landscape. No map that this woman has can tell the whole story, nor can she make up her own picture from amalgamating them; she is left to attempt to negotiate those borders with a map that is essentially invisible and unknowable.
The place in which the woman moves may be uncertain, but across both sections of the book, Shibli pays a great detail of attention to the exact movements of the bodies she writes. Though the time period and perspectives change, Shibli’s writing is always extraordinarily descriptive, minutely detailing each movement that either protagonist makes. In a place in which the borders and landscapes are changing all the time, Shibli gives a sense that all that can be counted on is the discrete physical movements of a person’s body. I was reminded of the stiff movements of characters in computer games, where each step or movement of the hand is the outcome of a selected action, a button pressed, or the space bar continually clicked. But her attention to these movements is distinct. In the first section, Shibli meticulously writes the movements of the officer, as he washes, changes his clothes, looks for insects around the tent, or uses the body of the terrified young Palestinian woman to warm him: “He bent over his belongings again, picked up a lantern, lifted the glass, then placed it on the table without lighting the mantle and left the hut.” This descriptive bodily attention is echoed in the second section: “I arrive at the barrier gate at the main entrance, and I don’t see the guard at his station, so I get out of the car, push the gate open myself, get back in the car, drive through, get out, close the gate.” But alongside these descriptions, the author gives the additional import of the emotional charge; the woman is often overcome by fear and paralyzing anxiety, as she doesn’t know the impact her movements might have on her immediate safety, which is brought to bear in the final moments of the book. This creates a stark contrast between the two, as the officer can move confidently and without fear of repercussion, while the woman is never allowed that same surety.
Shibli gives profound attention to the way that violence, or the possibility of violence, affects the body, and how it is produced through the repetition, whether through the constant marching of a perimeter, or in calming oneself to keep fear in check. These descriptions read like a choreography of violence, one that is played out again and again in varying forms, but that is always recognizable.
In an interview with LitHub, Shibli suggests that “maybe the realization of the repeated injustice that one cannot escape in the context of Palestine was the first force to push me early on into literature.” In this novel, this injustice is about only one event, recognized by one person many years after it occurred. But this does not lessen the horror of it, and by writing the horrifying event in the present, Shibli renders the viciousness in stark simplicity. Though a spare novel, Shibli’s work is powerful and this translation by Elisabeth Jaquette is rendered with exquisite clarity and quiet control.