Yumna Kassab's impressionistic novel Politica considers moral dilemmas and harsh choices in a time of war

Mosaic, al-Aqsa mosque, Jerusalem. Salajean/Shutterstock
Mosaic, al-Aqsa mosque, Jerusalem. Salajean/Shutterstock

Politica is the fourth novel by Yumna Kassab, who has made a significant impact on the Australian literary scene since the publication of her debut novel The House of Youssef in 2019.

Politica is written in Kassab’s now signature polyphonic style. A variety of abruptly introduced characters (“Um Kareem came here with tears in her eyes”) ponder their possibilities, drift in and out of relationships, and seek personal solace in the midst of a prolonged and violent conflict.

Set in a small community, the novel is sparsely written, with minimal description of character, place or historical moment. It does not let readers anchor themselves in an evolving narrative arc. Instead, it asks them to immerse themselves in aperçus of a bewildered and suffering community.

In this unnamed town or village, the past is ever present, and the present is barely tolerable in the absence of a hopeful future.

Review: Politica – Yumna Kassab (Ultimo Press)

Politica achieves its impressionistic effects through quirky vignettes, poetry, fable, gnomic aphorisms, and arguments between conservative forces and those seeking to redefine their values. World building is at a minimum. We focus on the larger question of how a society copes with a state of endless war, when politics saturates every dimension of life.

Some of the characters are resistance leaders and their heirs; others are ordinary people with everyday aspirations. But they all face urgent questions. Fight or flight? Resist or accommodate? Accept the political as the only authentic option or seek the consolations of private life?

Politica has allegorical ambitions, so these dilemmas cannot be resolved by referring to a describable geopolitical reality. The novel spans decades, yet no particular enemy or threat can be consistently identified, nor does it identify the nation in which it is set. We are somewhere in the Middle East. The war has something to do with the legacy of European hegemony. It may be a civil war initiated by an insurgency, but there are also striking references to a colonial invasion and the potentially genocidal destruction of a culture:

Miss tell me what remains of us once […] our existence has been wiped from the Earth?

The pressing question of the use and abuse of power is posed repeatedly. In particular, the reader is asked to think about the ends that justify violence. What are the injuries to the soul that result from the brutal murders, the betrayals, the fetishising of violence? Abdullah, the original spiritual leader of the cause, muses that

This is a dirty business. We don’t want to end up dirtier still.

The novel uses early flash forwards to remind us that idealism is always in conflict with political realities. Politics is depicted as a realm of contingency, reversals of fortune and unhoped for outcomes.

Abdullah’s daughter Yasmeen, who sacrifices a comfortable future in order to assume political leadership, later recognises herself ruefully as a mere prop. She appears in a photoshoot with an enemy president – an act that generates feelings of self-loathing, and perhaps leads to her assassination. The incident and its ominous outcome, a media-driven event, have echoes of Yasser Arafat’s visit to Camp David during the Oslo Accords in 2000 and the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Yet in its early sections the novel is not fatalistic about what is politically achievable. The wise Abdullah probes the ethics of a just war and wants to educate his disciples:

I wish to teach as I wish to teach my child […] I do not wish to trivialise the value or meaning of a human’s life whether on our side or on theirs.

When normal channels of social mobility are shut down, the question of how to educate and uplift oneself, one’s family and one’s community arises. In the character of Yasmeen, the novel offers a rewarding variation on male-dominated narratives of anti-colonial resistance.

Yasmeen is Abdullah’s elective successor. She resists her mother’s calls for a more conventional domestic existence and seeks to train herself as a future political leader, stubbornly attending meetings with her father from a young age. The story of her education has elements of a Bildungsroman, as she pursues an adventurous life path in the face of adversity.

Yet from there the novel’s desire to capture the dolorous essence of politics begins to overwhelm any interest in character development. A gallery of figures typical of prolonged warfare emerges for the reader to contemplate. There is the bully who loves power, domination and fighting for its own sake. There is the cunning “rat” looking for the main chance. Cultures of martyrdom are scrutinised, as we witness the pointless demise of a suicide bomber. The humanist Abdullah reminds us not to

idolise death over life […] Such is the tendency of one who has not yet learned to live.

Yumna Kassab. Tiger Webb/Giramondo Publishing
Yumna Kassab. Tiger Webb/Giramondo Publishing

Read more: Colonial and nationalist myths are recast in Yumna Kassab's Australiana

A moral project

Maks Sipowicz has written about Kassab’s “moral project”. In Politica, we can recognise a desire to humanise the protagonists of Middle Eastern conflicts. This is of crucial importance when Arab and Muslim political movements, including that of the Palestinians, are relentlessly delegitimised and dehumanised.

Politica wants to show what a resistance movement might look like from the side of the oppressed. The novel questions the total warfare the West now excuses as a drive for security. Indeed, it is hard not to think of Gaza when Kassab names a chapter “Exile no right of return” or when an innocent child beseeches

I thought you said they wouldn’t touch the ruins. My family were sheltering there.

Yet there is always a danger that a novel seeking to say something about politics will begin to moralise. The tendency becomes more prevalent in the second half of Politica. A war that began with noble ideals comes to resemble a plague laying waste to all who experience it. The novel’s early interest in difficult choices and humane conduct gives way to generalities about the futility and hypocrisy of politics:

Politics is all words. Remember, the truth is somewhere else.

In the third section, the conventional Gothic trope of a well that preserves the memories of the dead and witnesses the confessions of the living feels somewhat hackneyed:

There is a presence here. She feels it close to the well.

Telling begins to predominate over showing, as sententious nostrums badger the reader:

There may be no witness in the living but the record is always kept. The weight of history is layers, and it does not disappear, no matter how oblivious is humanity.

A once energetic character called Salma, now mature and disappointed, sits vigilantly facing a doorway as a rather heavy-handed signifier of trauma, anxiety and compulsion.

I will admit that I found myself questioning the continuing narrative interest of a community at a standstill. I wanted to understand the cause of the distress and fatigue of characters who are briefly introduced. Is it the corrupt neo-colonial state, the occupying forces, the legacy of Euro-American hegemony?

I think Politica bears comparison with the literary tradition of “civic realism” identified by Timothy Brennan, which wants its readers to recognise and then oppose a bad reality. That recognition can also be achieved through allegory and magic-realism. Mohsin Hamid’s intricate fable Exit West (2017), about migration as a human right, has demonstrated the vitality of indirect narrative techniques.

Yet Politica seems nervous about the enormity of contemporary geopolitics. It prefers bathos in a minor key to the ambitious scope of historical fiction, now an abundant postcolonial genre.

To its credit, Kassab’s novel retains a sense that the political can generate realignments of gender roles, and that small players and working people can become prophetic voices. But it has little to say about the promise of politics, which is also about a much needed transformation in the cause of justice and the human efforts needed to achieve it.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Ned Curthoys, The University of Western Australia.

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Ned Curthoys does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.