In early 2020, the German-Iraqi author Abbas Khider published his fifth novel Palast der Miserablen (approximate translation ‘Palace of the Miserable’). The story is set in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime. From an early age, the young protagonist Shams experiences directly the effects of the political and military conflicts in his home country. During Saddam Hussein’s reign, the country waged war against Iran and Kuwait, was occupied twice by the USA, and spent the time in between close to civil war. Shams lives through just these times.
Shams is the narrator of his own story. His account of his childhood in a small village in southern Iraq and his youth in a slum – the so-called tin district – of Baghdad is interspersed with a second account detailing his imprisonment. The novel builds suspense by concealing for a relatively long time how Shams came to be imprisoned. He seems to be a normal boy with normal dreams. He attends school and works part-time as a plastic bag seller, bus driver’s assistant, porter at the market, assistant in a photo shop and later as a bookseller. His goal is to support his parents financially and to improve his future prospects through a good education. However, it is precisely his last job as a bookseller that is to be the protagonist’s undoing. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, words are dangerous – anyone who says or reads something undesirable can easily be made to pay for it with their life. The novel takes its title from the name of a club of intellectuals and reading enthusiasts in Baghdad with which Shams, himself an avid reader, becomes involved. The Palace of the Miserable is so miserable because the dictatorship does not allow critical thinking.
The book is a quick read, and the constant blows of fate that Shams and his family face serve to draw the reader in. As if in deliberate contrast to the bombings, and the difficulties that confront Sham’s family, the novel consistently offers up humorous anecdotes that lighten the tension. For example, as it relates how it came to be that Sham’s home village was baptized ‘Hearty Hell’ or that Bala Bush is a curse in Arabic, just as the invasion of the first US President Bush was a curse for Iraq.
The narrative is focalized through Shams throughout, which renders the story very personal and emotional. Every now and then, however, the perspective of a pubescent boy who thinks in binary terms despite a brief encounter with feminism is almost exhausting. Moreover, the neutral register of the reports keeps readers at a distance from the other characters. Shams’ sister Qamer, his parents, his good friend Hisham and others seem to have little depth due to this narrative style. Palast der Miserablen is a book worth reading for what it relates about the many conflicts in Iraq, about awakening sexuality, poverty and class differences, and the love of literature – but it hasn’t quite made it onto my list of new favourites.
(There is no English translation of the book yet)