Review: Omar Sabbagh 'Dye and Other Stories'


Comfortable in any medium, but with a recognisable voice, Omar Sabbagh has already published essays (Disciplined Subjects and Better Selves), a novella (Via Negativa) and poetry (Square Root of Beirut and My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint). It is unsurprising, then, that these prose pieces are mature and developed. Literature, theology and his alter ego—personified in characters such as Omar Ghaleez or hinted in autobiographical traces—haunt Sabbagh’s work. Like his nonfiction, but even more spirited, Dye and Other Stories plays seriously with philosophical ideas, richer for their narrative ambiguities. And these ideas have much to do with interrogating selfhood in its metaphysical context, making the introspective mood appropriate. A consistent feature of Sabbagh’s writing is his engagement with other writers, especially from the modernist tradition and authors with an interest in self-identity. Here, writers of self-reflection make frequent appearances (Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov), but more explicitly authors of Confessional writing appear over and over too: Thomas De Quincey, Augustine, Franz Kafka. This genre, with all of its religious connotations intact, grounds the book.

As a poet, Sabbagh fruitfully obsesses with language, sounds and puns, ‘Here in Hemingway’s one hems one’s way’. The prose is rich and the style ambitious. In ‘The Saddest Story’ Sabbagh uses a framing device reminiscent of Joseph Conrad, the first story, ‘Benches,’ is written in the second person POV that plays with the idea of the Reader ‘you may be a complete outsider’. Caricature is frequently and humorously deployed, ‘He was known as The Germanian, not only because he was of German extraction, but also because he was considered, and considered himself, quite the musty metaphysician.’ As are Chestertonian allegories and parables, allegory and parable being two words that frequently root their way into the subtitles of Sabbagh’s stories. But this book is not reducible to a set of references and allusions, jokes and introspections—however clever and prolific those features prove. Two qualities particularly stand out: the first is Sabbagh’s overriding and vivid sense of place, the sense of a very particular set of places.

Although often a mediation about self, the collection does not neglect its broader world in all of its politics, class and history. Cities, particularly Beirut and Dubai, are recurring characters in Dye and Other Stories as surely as the wise men, writers and intellectuals that otherwise populate these fictions and creative nonfictions. They are given their own trajectories, quirks, predispositions, neuroses and religious and political sensibilities. The latter metropolis is rendered a Gnostic and gothic ‘city so overtly forged by a demi-urge, rather than some more fundamental and Authentic Creator’. Whereas in the former ‘Apocrypha breed like viruses’. In pieces such as ‘The Charlatan,’ ‘From Bourbon To Scotch’ and ‘The Beirut Cadenzas’ we meet these places over and over. They shape the stories and characters.   

The second emphasised quality is Sabbagh’s insight, reiterated in his earlier literature too, that human beings cannot be comprehended in lieu of narrative. As Sabbagh puts it, ‘We are necessarily storied beings.’ In their varied, overlapping way, every story articulates this insight anew, building a stronger case. Whether that’s in ‘A Superior Man,’ in which ‘I thought of that liminal space where life ends, surpassed: becoming story.’ Or in the fictionalised biography of the eponymous in ‘I, Augustine.’ Written in the winding, dense style of the Church Father, this is a recounting of a life, ‘between the ground zero that was my Thagaste, and Madaurus, site of some of my later schooling, and later Carthage and Milan’. It uses as its narrative his life’s movement ‘out of the dank heresy of Mani and towards the eternal hearthside of Catholic Christianity’. In the titular story Sabbagh uses the example of requited love to more fully explore the motif of our necessarily storied selves: 

The one guy who 
succeeds is the guy who says the same sentence at the same time with, let us say, a different tone of voice, a different play around the eyes, a different kind of smile, while, meanwhile, a bus in this one instance, a bus the colour red, the colour of the heart, happens to pass by in the background, you, the young lady, having just finished a conversation minutes earlier on love, and having commented on your friend’s pencil case which was coloured a tomato red. And so on. In other words: singularities make all the difference. 

The varied reiterations of this idea, beautifully situated in realised places, explored through a self-interrogating voice, culminate in an entrancing set of thematically-tied short stories that deserve to be read.

Review: Morgan Bell's 'Laissez Faire'
Review: Erica Benner ‘Be Like the Fox’

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Wednesday, 08 April 2020

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