Zakaria Tamer’s “Breaking Knees” tugs us rushing straight into the Big Topics: religion, politics, sex and death. It deals with imprisonment, literal and figurative, its characters entrapped in unhappy marriages and by their personal inadequacies, ignorances and fears, as well as by dictatorship, bureaucracy and corrupt tradition. It sounds grim, but “Breaking Knees” is a very funny book.
Tamer is a well-known Syrian journalist and writer of children’s books. His literary reputation, however, rests on his development of the very short story (in Arabic, al-qissa al-qasira jiddan), of which there are 63 here. Each is a complex situational study, a flash of life or nightmare, each with at least one beginning, middle and end. Some are as clear as day; some are seriously puzzling. Some are no more than extended, taboo-breaking jokes.
It’s certainly satire. Tamer uses an elegant, euphemistic language (referring, for instance, to “that which men have, but not women”) to tell some very plain tales. Delicious irony abounds. In bed an adulterous woman begs her lover “not to soil the purity of her ablutions.” In the street afterwards she frowns at a woman without a headscarf and says “in a voice full of sadness that immoral behaviour had become widespread.”
But it’s stranger than satire. The stories slip easily from naturalist to symbolist to utterly surreal. A knife is as likely to talk and feel as a man. The dead converse. Men give revolvers instead of roses to the women they admire. In one story a pimp turns into a wall. In another, in a typically unsettling dream shift, a boy discovers that his mother is really his sister, and then a moment later that she’s an orphan brought up as his sister. She steps into the shower with him. Somewhere else a man called Saeed shaves off his moustache to reveal a man called Raghid in the bathroom mirror. Raghid then shaves his head, unwittingly creating a man called Walid.
Tamer is a master of the twist in the tale. At least one twist: the plot focus may shift thrice in a page. A good example is Story 54, perhaps my favourite of the collection, in which “an old woman whose back was bent went into a park whose trees were bare.” She stands in front of an immense stone statue, a representation of “the man who had killed her sons and their father.” She wants “to look daggers” at the statue, but its power is such that she shrinks before it. Not only the old woman but all the nearby people and buildings shrink until they disappear. We’re one sentence from the end, and the statue’s omnipotence seems well established. But then the final line: “Nothing remained except the statue, and the birds whose pleasure it was to crap upon it.”