A Name for What’s Not There

In The Wrong End of the Telescope, the August CBC selection, author Rabih Alameddine uses the approach of intimist painters.

woman walking
Petar Paunchev

Among the refugee stories in Rabih Alameddine’s sixth novel, The Wrong End of the Telescope, is that of an unnamed Syrian woman. She is interviewed by the novel’s narrator, Mina, a Lebanese doctor who’s come to the Greek island of Lesbos as a medical volunteer. The refugee and her husband had been farmers, she explains, working “the most fertile plot of land,” a place she could walk blindfolded, knowing where she was by the feel of the earth through her shoes. She knows the name of every tree and wildflower and grass and misses “the smell of flowering apricots.” Striking details come, literally, from the ground up, making the unknown, Syria, familiar and lessening the narrative distance between reader and story.

Details are shared on a small, intimate scale with a trusted receiver, but in the course of the novel, they gather into an expansive, collective portrayal of a people whom, as the author has said, “the world does not listen to.” There is Hiyam, a trans woman from Raqqa who must leave when her boyfriend is executed by an Islamic militia. A gay couple from Iraq are “having trouble because they were much too masculine.” A family targeted by Daesh escapes at night, the truck’s headlights off to evade snipers, and the matriarch recalls that the landscape “appeared gloomy and purple, yet I was able to see olive groves as we drove along, cucumber fields and bushes of sumac.” In a 2021 interview, Alameddine observes that detail enables empathy, asking, “Can you get people to care?” No, he concludes—news reports are felt “for a minute or two,” then forgotten. But, he adds, “You can get them to empathize.” Close detail—visual, sensory, idiosyncratic—enables us to see, to understand and connect, and, as we read in The Wrong End of the Telescope, to “break the wall between reader and subject.”

The visual impulse in Alameddine’s writing feels natural—he’s a painter who on Twitter famously shares paintings and photography across a range of movements and genres. He shows us what can be seen of the land but also the atmosphere of loss and displacement brought by violence and civil war. Stylistically, Alameddine is an intimist. Intimism, a branch of 19th-century French painting, broke from the impressionists’ cool experiments of light in favor of what fin de siècle critic Camille Mauclair called “the expression of a psychologic ideal.” Mauclair held in particular esteem Pierre Bonnard, a painter of shimmering domestic scenes, and Édouard Vuillard, whose muted interiors and planes of tightly knitted paint feel almost inviolable, calling the latter an artist “of melancholic distinction.”

In prose, an intimist approach relies on what V.S. Naipaul called ground-level detail—carefully observed, immersed in place and point of view, passed from one insider to another. In The Wrong End of the Telescope, there’s an intimist sensibility at work, for example, when Mina, watching the ocean, observes, “The embryonic stain on the water transitioned into an actual boat. I could see the orange of the refugees’ life vests, the gray-green of the dinghy, the black of the wetsuits.” Intimism, to borrow George Saunders’s definition of Chekhov, is quiet, domestic, and apolitical, but Alameddine is an intimist with a larger aim: writing against the tyranny of nations, borders, and militant states.

Take the tale of Rania Kassem, a well-to-do Damascus ophthalmologist whose deracination is explained, in part, through the landscape of her domestic life. When her husband, a left-leaning journalist, is arrested, her life is upended. She searches every prison, until, fired from her job, abandoned by friends, an outcast alone in their apartment, she is left with objects: “the antique grandfather clock in the hallway” her husband would wind each day, now silent, and “the Scottish plaid blanket he kept in the living room for his nap after lunch.”

When Damascus is no longer safe, the rules of what possessions to take are “arbitrary,” but she packs “her beloved espresso machine. She suddenly couldn’t live without it.” The impulse particularizes Rania’s deep attachment to the ordinary things of home and her story of escape and exile. She arrives at a refugee camp on the Turkish border “an IDP, internally displaced person,” but eventually, for her own safety, must leave there, too. She settles in Vienna and one day buys a grandfather clock: “It was only a case, no pendulum, no weights, gears, or wheels, but it reminded her of her home in Damascus: she had to have it. Her two cats now used the disemboweled clock for nesting.” When Mina recounts the interview, the apartment in Damascus is still front of mind for Rania: “Who knew where their belongings were now?”

Miriam, from Homs, a hairdresser whose apartment was filled with plants she lovingly cared for, says, “There must be a name somewhere for what’s not there,” and in The Wrong End of the Telescope, each refugee’s story describes another place, and a life, that is gone. It’s no accident that we call our possessions belongings: they become details that anchor us to place. And like the Syrian farmer, we know ours by heart. You might stand in a doorway, or beneath a tree, and feel it’s your place, know you belong, believe you can exist without threat, and accordingly, Alameddine shows us the particulars—an espresso machine, an apricot tree—so that we might know, from the comfort of where we read this book, what seems unthinkable: how it would feel if we were forced to leave it all behind.•

Join us on August 18 at 5 p.m., when Rabih Alameddine will talk to CBC host John Freeman and special guest Aleksandar Hemon about The Wrong End of the Telescope. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow California Book Club members know what you think of the novel. Register here.

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