The Silence and the Roar an excellent novel about a brutal despot and an unlikely hero

The Silence and the Roar may be a slender novel, but it is hardly slight, writes Malcolm Forbes. The story of a man forbidden to write for not toeing the party line is at once jolting and courageous

Shadows of Syrians are reflected on a giant poster showing President Bashar Assad, during a supporting rally in Damascus, Syria, Friday, Dec. 16, 2011. Syrian security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters after Friday prayers at several locations around the country, while the army sent reinforcements into a southern area where military defectors recently launched deadly attacks on regime troops.
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The Silence and the Roar
Nihad Sirees
Pushkin Press

In The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa's 2000 novel about the tyranny of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic, we learn that the dictator went by a variety of grandiloquent titles. Not content with just the Chief, Vargas Llosa informs us that Trujillo was also the Generalissimo, the Benefactor, and the Father of the New Nation. Even his wife had to be addressed as the Bountiful First Lady by social chroniclers. But then this was the 20th century, civilisation's bloodiest to date, and one which gave us Der Führer, Il Duce and the Supreme and Dear Leader. If despots wanted to rule with an iron fist, they needed a correspondingly vainglorious sobriquet.

Early in Nihad Sirees' excellent novel, The Silence and the Roar, we discover that in the 21st century little has changed. The dictator of his unnamed country is called the Leader, "also known as the Boss", but best of all "the Inspirer of the Nation and the Compass of Humanity, as they put it". They happen to be the oppressed and brainwashed populace who pledge obedience to the state and its heavily orchestrated personality cult. But Fathi, Sirees' hero, bravely distances himself from the duped fools and menacing party faithful. A once-famous writer who was expelled from the writers' and journalists' union and banned from writing for not toeing the party line, Fathi continues to shun the charade and thus play a dangerous game. We follow him on his way through a city over the course of one day, and in doing so are shown an insightful and valuable portrait of totalitarian iniquity and an underdog's struggle.

The "roar" from the novel's title deafens our protagonist from the outset. It is the 20th anniversary of the Leader's rule, two decades since he seized power after a military coup. To mark the occasion there are to be a series of processions throughout the country. Every citizen must take part. Television crews will film each march and air them live. Housewives are excused on the proviso that they watch it indoors on TV with the windows open and the volume turned up. The din from the chanting crowds is tremendous. Loudspeakers and megaphones pump slogans, speeches, poets' panegyrics and "motivational anthems". On top of this, the heat is intense and enervating.

Fathi, attempting to hide from noise and heat, is caught by one of the Comrades, accused of not participating and insulted. When he sees a group of the Leader's thuggish, khaki-shirted cadres beating up a similar "traitor", he intervenes and protests, only to have his identification card confiscated. "Come on down to the station and pick it up," he is told. Sirees skilfully introduces the tension: can Fathi, already persona non grata and running out of chances, survive without it, and what must he do to reclaim it?

As with many a novel whose events unfold within a single day, plot is kept to a minimum or even dispensed with altogether. In its place is a series of incidents ranging from the humdrum to the portentous. Novelists concoct new ways to destabilise the quotidian, to shake or disorient characters from their daily norms. The Silence and the Roar is no exception, and when Fathi has dusted himself down and extricated himself from the melee of the parade, he goes about doing regular things: he visits his mother; he meets his girlfriend, Lama, and the pair make love in her stifling apartment; he soaks up the local colour and chats with locals.

However, this is no ordinary day and the novel's depiction of a regime gradually tightening its grip help shred any resemblance of what most of us would consider familiar. But more than this, Sirees goes on to charge each stage of Fathi's day with a singular shock. His mother ends her small talk to announce she is remarrying - not just anyone but Mr Ha'el, the Leader's head of personal security. Lama cools his ardour with her theory that the marriage is a ruse to rehabilitate the blacklisted Fathi but only if he joins the Party and writes propaganda for the Leader. And the fellow citizens he mingles with have their own mini-bombshells to drop: one man, a printer, recounts a nasty little tale of how after an ink accident he was accused of intentionally defacing posters of the Leader and tortured; a hospital doctor, unable to cope with the incoming stream of casualties who were trampled on and suffocated in the march, implores Fathi to explain the day's chaos. "Surrealism" is Fathi's response. Both he and the reader are routinely jolted, despite the former's best efforts to keep his cool. It is in the novel's final section, when Fathi visits first the Party headquarters and then the military security compound for an unexpected showdown with Mr Ha'el, that his mettle and powers of resistance are truly tested.

Sirees, a Syrian who fled his homeland after increased surveillance and intimidation from the government and who now lives and writes in exile in Egypt, has clearly imbued his protagonist with his own indomitable courage and frustrations.

Fact and fiction fuse too well: the novel's city and dictatorship are wonderfully vivid and consequently depressingly realistic. This is a land of kowtowing state functionaries and sadistic security who have inculcated upon the masses the belief that they constitute "merely a small fraction of this world that adores the Leader because there are also trees and birds and clouds and … my God, even the stones and the dirt tremble as the Leader's feet tread upon them."

Radio stations shun classical Arabic music in favour of martial music or love songs directed at the Leader. Laughter is "accursed chattering" and so hazardous; poetry is approved of as it inspires zealotry whereas prose, as Fathi has found to his cost, "moulds the rational mind, individuality and personality" and is outlawed. This is Sirees' world at its most Orwellian. Thought is treasonous. "Any hint of individuality is a threat to the Leader's supremacy". When Fathi fearlessly proclaims himself an intellectual to his interrogator, we are put in mind of a line from Orwell's 1946 essay The Prevention of Literature: "it is at the point where literature and politics cross that totalitarianism exerts its greatest pressure on the intellectual".

The unrelenting cacophony also bears down on Fathi, sapping his ability to read and write. He is plagued by a nightmare in which an orchestra is stuck forever in tuning mode. "Melody is sound; tuning is noise." Fathi yearns for silence, but also to be free of the silence of his professional inactivity. "The silence that was imposed upon me for years and years has nearly suffocated me."

Later Lama stresses to him that "Silence is wisdom when talk is praise for the Leader." But during his tension-freighted exchange with Mr Ha'el, silence takes the form of a less appealing alternative. Fathi asks if he is being made to choose "between the silence of prison and the noise of the regime". "If I were you," comes the answer, "I'd be more worried about the silence of the grave."

While The Silence and the Roar is a slender novel, it is far from slight. When Fathi isn't describing bouts of violence, he is regaling us with tangential asides on the deification of kings, the history of conquests, and how in his beleaguered country "madness reigned over all existence."

In Sirees' poignant afterword (dated August 2012) he writes of "another kind of roar" that he never anticipated, the roar of artillery and tanks in Syria. "The leader is levelling cities and using lethal force against his own people in order to hold on to power." Sirees concludes by echoing the word he gave Fathi, his brilliantly realised mouthpiece: "What kind of Surrealism is this?"

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.