After a Great Flood, a Struggle Between Faith and Reason

NO ONE PRAYED OVER THEIR GRAVES, by Khaled Khalifa. Translated by Leri Price.

The Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa’s novels have cruel titles, of the sort Jean Genet might have composed for William S. Burroughs, or Verlaine for Rimbaud.

Khalifa, who was born near Aleppo in 1964, has published six novels in Arabic. Four have appeared in English, each translated by the estimable Leri Price. The first was “In Praise of Hatred” (2006). Then came “No Knives in the Kitchens of This City” (2013) and “Death Is Hard Work” (2016), a finalist for a National Book Award. Now comes a title with similar uplift: “No One Prayed Over Their Graves.”

And yet. Despite Khalifa’s absorption in the disputes that have torn Syria and the Middle East apart for centuries — his novels are filled with accounts of massacres, great displacements, mass graves and sharp discord between liberals and fundamentalists — the tone of his work is often antic. There’s a freight of comedy and sensuality. You sense this writer asking, as Philip Roth did in his Kafkaesque novella “The Breast” (1972), “What is a catastrophe without its humorous side?”

The sensuality of his fiction is frequently related to olfaction. Few living writers pay as much attention to smell as Khalifa does. He’s like Dickens in this regard. He can also resemble Chaucer, for whom smell was indicative of a person’s moral state. This sense, so intimately linked to memory and desire, matters in fiction as it does in life.

One character in “In Praise of Hatred,” for example, is a perfumer. He is “tall and gaunt, clean-clothed.” His “hands always smelled of the perfumes he traded in.” Scent figures just as strongly in the two novels that followed.

In “No One Prayed Over Their Graves,” Khalifa’s obsession is everywhere on display as well. One woman smells like eucalyptus; another, less attractively, reeks of open drains. A bedroom smells like abandonment. At an important moment in the text, we read: “The old fragrance of friendship came back to us.”

At heart, this is indeed a novel about a friendship. It’s about Hanna and Zakaria, a pair of cocky princelings, hipsters in their moment, who scheme to open, around the turn of the last century, a great citadel to pleasure — a Larry Flynt Hustler Club, of a sort, with more bohemian trappings.

“They would invite women from Aleppo, Damascus and Beirut who had been hand-selected by a group of pimps throughout the year.” (One can “moan in three languages.”) They will serve “the finest alcohol from the Jews in Aleppo.” The card table will be from London. There will be, intriguingly, a stage especially for suicides, so big losers can off themselves in style.

They hire an architect to build it. He is on Hanna and Zakaria’s wavelength. He points out — Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano would surely concur — “that architecture wasn’t like pouring a glass of wine between a lover’s breasts.”

The good times come to an end when, in 1907, Hanna and Zakaria return to their village near Aleppo and find that it has been wiped out by a flood. Most members of their families, and nearly everyone they’ve known, have been killed. Is this God’s punishment?

What follows is a moral accounting. Hanna becomes an ascetic mystic; people think he can perform miracles. What follows, too, is a wide-angle account of Hanna’s and Zakaria’s later lives and those of their many descendants, some of whom end up studying in Europe.

A tension between faith and reason plays out in each of these stories. This is a secular novel about religious madness. Lives are at stake. To receive a warning from Muslim fundamentalists about one’s debaucheries is not like receiving a memo from the Harper Valley P.T.A.

When you get lost while driving, you turn off the radio and pull over for a bit. When you get lost while reading a novel, you skip back a few paragraphs and try to reclaim your bearings. I did this often while reading “No One Prayed Over Their Graves.” It rarely helped.

Nadine Gordimer said in her Paris Review interview that she didn’t mind being puzzled when reading a novel. I don’t either, generally. But Khalifa goes to great lengths to frustrate his readers. This narrative shifts back and forth in time. Characters have similar names. They speak from the grave before we know they are dead.

The intricacies of Khalifa’s plotting, and his occasional vagueness, have led critics to compare him to Faulkner. But Faulkner’s characters feel more real than those in “No One Prayed Over Their Graves.” They’re earthier. Khalifa’s too often flop between stereotypes — saints or sinners, lovers or fighters.

Khalifa buries his story under a late-Rushdie-like muchness, with embellishment upon embellishment. There are prophecies and rising souls and forbidden loves; every tear is bitterly wept. There are conversions and renunciations of conversions. Your eyeballs begin to glaze over, as if they were ceramic plates. Everything is desperate, to paraphrase the old Adam Ant song, but somehow not serious.

The citadel to pleasure that Hanna and Zakaria create is said to be easy to enter but hard to leave. The opposite is true of “No One Prayed Over Their Graves.”

NO ONE PRAYED OVER THEIR GRAVES | By Khaled Khalifa | Translated by Leri Price | 404 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $30

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