Tale of Tala is a novel by the young Palestinian-Canadian author and journalist Chaker Khazaal. The book tells the story of three people. Henry, the narrator of the story, is a successful American novelist from a very wealthy family; Fatima – who reinvents herself later as Tala – is a young Palestinian woman from a refugee camp in Lebanon; and her husband Bilal, her childhood friend from the same camp.
Henry, who some time ago has had his first failure as a writer, was brought up according to the values of his businessman-father: you have to be a winner, and of course Henry is supposed to be a winner! His first unsuccessful novel and the public and critical reaction to it is therefore perceived by him to be a shattering defeat. Still under shock, he travels to Amsterdam and later to Ljubljana to distance himself from his life as a writer and media person and to indulge in to him new experiences, a life of drugs and sexual encounters with prostitutes, usually procured with the help of some sleazy hotel managers. But everything changes when he meets the gorgeous Tala, a prostitute of Palestinian origin.
Henry develops a strong infatuation with this woman, who tells him reluctantly her life story. A story that leads her and her later husband Bilal from a refugee camp in Lebanon to Turkey. They fall in the hands of criminals who separate them, with Bilal disappearing somewhere in Anatolia – he has been tricked to cross the border to Syria as it later turns out – and Tala hardly surviving an ordeal that finds her finally forced into prostitution. Henry, who is not only infatuated with Tala, but also hooked to her story which he plans to develop into a new book, a book that will be of course a success again, offers to help Tala to find Bilal. But his offer is motivated mainly by strong self-interest. He travels to Anatolia to find out what happened to Bilal and if he is still alive…what follows is a story full of action and deception.
The book touches on many interesting and important topics that are frequently not highlighted by the media, especially the hopeless situation of the stateless Palestinians in Lebanon. They vegetate there already in the third of fourth generation in refugee camps without ever having a chance of finding work and a normal life. The exploitation of the refugees from Syria and other countries by human traffickers, organ harvesters, and pimps, and the indifference or even hostility of the Western world is also a theme of the novel. The book has his strongest scenes when the author describes Tala’s and Bilial’s lives in the camp in which they grow up, and the ordeal Tala and two other girls have to go through during their attempt to reach Europe, with two of them (probably) dead and Tala forced into prostitution and separated from her husband. The author grew up in a similar refugee camp. He has extensively reported about the refugees and interviewed many of them, and it shows; these parts of the novel are much stronger than the description of Henry and everything he does and says.
With Henry I had several problems. First of all, I didn’t like him. Not a single bit. He is manipulative, has an inflated ego, and thinks of himself as a great writer, and a winner. I am mentioning this again because as readers, we are again and again reminded – in every chapter several times -, that he, Henry, is born to be a winner. If it suits him, he lies, deceives and even gets people that are in his way killed – and why? Just to satisfy his ego and his lusts. And to have another success as a writer.
The other problem with him, apart from being a self-righteous prig without any moral is that as a character in a novel, he is completely implausible. He discovers his talent for writing in his youth just like that, writes a masterful story (or what he thinks is masterful), but gives up writing immediately without sign of rebellion when his father tells him not to write but to become a businessman; then the father dies in an airplane crash, and wham!, Henry starts to write again and his novel is of course a success and bestseller. And so it goes novel after novel, he is just a great, successful writer with a lot of money, although the text we are reading (and which is authored by Henry) is frequently poorly written and full of clichés, very much in the unbearable self-congratulatory pseudo-philosophical style of a Paolo Coelho. The numerous clumsily written sex scenes make the book unfortunately a candidate for the Bad Sex in Literature Award. And the over-simplistic winner ideology of Henry is hammered way too frequently in us readers in sentences such as:
“For a man born a winner like me, every winding path is presumed to victory. For a loser, roads are often blocked by their despair; decisions are frightening things. For those who live between those two routes, doubt and uncertainty are roadblocks to overcome.”
Sigh. Henry is a prig and the author reminds the reader on almost every page of this fact. I was glad when I had finally finished this book.
I could see that the author is not without talent when he feels comfortable with his material; but as a novel the book is a complete failure in my opinion.
Chaker Khazaal: Tale of Tala, Hachette A .Antoine/Al Ahlia, Amman 2017
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