Sitting in her office in Ramallah, as the Israeli Defence Forces raze a neighbouring building to the ground, the unnamed narrator of Palestinian author Adania Shibli’s new novel observes that to see the “minor detail” is to “see the fly shit on a painting and not the painting itself.” The “minor detail” she is referring to is the precise date of the gang-rape and murder of a young Bedouin woman in the Negev (or in Arabic naqab) desert during the 1948 Palestinian exodus, exactly 25 years before her own birth. The major details have already been revealed to the reader in the first half of the novel, which closely follows the actions of an Israeli sergeant involved in the crime.
Such minor details are the “only way to arrive at the truth and definitive proof of its existence,” says the narrator, amid the “roar of occupation.” And so she goes on a dangerous journey that takes her from official museums to archives, referring to maps both obsolete and new which sometimes do—and sometimes do not—detail checkpoints, boundaries and walls. She is searching for something elusive: the kind of oral testimony that sits as a counter to sweeping historical narratives.
What Hannah Arendt identified as the “banality of evil” was marked, for the philosopher, by the failure of thought. Within systems of oppression, victims are denied an ability to think lucidly about their own agency as social and political beings. This is true of both the Palestinian and Israeli characters in Shibli’s novel.
A palpable sense of dread pulses beneath Minor Detail, heightened by the everyday textures of soapy water on hands, the sounds of dogs and camels groaning, the smell of petrol, minor details that repeat uncannily in both narratives. In Elisabeth Jaquette’s fine translation from Arabic, Shibli asks how we can account for and understand major crimes, by looking more closely for the details that escape.
Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette (Fitzcarraldo, £10.99)