Shukri Al Mubayyid has an eventful day that begins with his unfortunate death.
One morning, while shaving his beard in prison, his razor slips and slits his throat. He is taken to hospital but doctors’ efforts to save his life are to no avail. He is then put in a body bag and placed in a car that distributes the dead to their families.
But when the driver arrives at Shukri’s house, he finds it empty. Shukri’s relatives have been arrested, imprisoned or have moved overseas, and his friends claim not to know him. Embarrassed but also alert, Shukri’s restless corpse seizes an opportunity to flee and lie low in his home until his family finally returns to bury him.
So unfolds the story Grey Day by the acclaimed Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer.
In several respects, this fiendish tale is representative of the writer’s work – the setting is Al Queiq, a fictitious neighbourhood of Damascus, the language is simple, the style unadorned, the character wily, the plot (such as it is) a string of absurdities and the conclusion a marked change in fortune.
But what really makes this tale typical Tamer is its brevity. The strange events, dark details and wry flourishes are tightly compressed into only two pages. Tamer is renowned for his very short stories. Some comprise half a dozen pages, others a single paragraph.
Grey Day features in a collection of Tamer’s stories that has just been published in English. Sour Grapes brings together 59 tales in which characters fall from grace, struggle in vain to stand tall, or just try to get by amid the brutalities of an oppressive regime and the complexities of everyday life.
As we work our way through these compact narratives – skilfully translated by Alessandro Columbu and Mireia Costa Capallera – we marvel at the various tones, textures and voices that make up Tamer’s creative range.
The author’s propensity for comic peculiarity is on show in The Disgraced. After announcing that Ghalib Al Halas is the man with the eponymous epithet, Tamer proceeds with a list of his family’s grotesque attributes.
We hear of a father who resembles “a skeleton covered in a yellow dangling skin” and who only desires women that smell of onions and garlic; a sister who was locked up in a mental institution “because her insanity is contagious and can be transmitted through sight, hearing and breath”; and an aunt whose neighbours left their homes and slept on pavements to get away from her nosiness and gossiping.
In contrast, there is the miniature tragedy that is Abaya in the Alley, in which a man attempting to offer assistance to a woman is beaten senseless by someone who mistakes good deeds for predatory behaviour.
Violence is also a theme in other stories. In The Ruins, one of several tales that read like a fable, a hammer complains to an anvil about its menial existence and so takes out its frustration on the blacksmith who utilises them, but who “works to get poorer and poorer every day.”
It is perhaps no surprise to come across such a story, for Tamer’s first job was as a blacksmith. He went on to work as an editor of literary journals but was dismissed for writing an editorial which criticised Hafez Al Assad’s regime.
Tamer taps into this journalistic world for his satirical story Day and Night. An editor tells a writer to make “minor” alterations to his article: he should come up with a less provocative title and remove his harsh criticism of “people we are eager to be friends with.” When the writer asks what will remain of his article after he makes these changes, the editor replies: “Your name written in black large characters.”
And then there are Tamer’s stories that veer away from the present and explore an aspect of Syria’s past. The One with the Fez is set in the 1920s after the Battle of Maysalun. French general Henri Gouraud leads his victorious troops into Damascus and issues a strict ban on the fez. One man, Mansur Al Haaf, defies the order and is sentenced to death. But after Mansur’s execution, his fez displays “occult strength” by proving to be both irremovable and indestructible.
Some of the stories here are mere sketches that are too short to make an impression. Others start with good intentions but ultimately go nowhere, or are simply too whimsical for their own good.
However, the majority are well crafted, richly imagined and full of vitality. Tamer’s colourful cast includes convicts, rogues, officials, singers and squabbling lovers. The oddities accumulate – we encounter a scholar who transforms into animals, a husband who divorces his wife because she forgets to put salt in her cooking and a headless man who hopes to find love with a headless woman.
Horses fly, books talk and a knife moans in distress “for the many bodies it had stabbed”. While serving up warped realities, Tamer highlights the hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies of human nature.
This first English edition of Sour Grapes is overdue – the book was originally published in Arabic over 20 years ago. With luck, anglophone readers won’t have to wait as long to sample more of Tamer’s tall tales.