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Extract | Only the Dead: A Levantine Tragedy, T. J. Gorton

T. J. Gorton’s debut novel Only the Dead: A Levantine Tragedy (Quartet Books) has been shortlisted for the Author’s Club First Novel Award. The winner will be announced tomorrow, Sunday 17th May, at the Authors’ Club LitFest Online 2020

The narrative moves back and forth between civil war in Beirut and the Levant of 1915-18, as Vartan Nakashian, an Armenian from Aleppo, looks back over his tumultuous life, involving espionage, betrayal and revenge at a time of war and genocide. Here is an extract to give you a taste of the author’s style and voice. You can buy a copy of the novel HERE

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“Dust motes danced in the sunbeams. Leaning back, he watched their senseless, ceaseless movement and for some reason thought again of old Bustros, the patriarch of a great Greek Orthodox tribe. He would be amazed to see his house today, nearly two hundred years after he built it; surrounded by roads and overlooked by an office block, its gar- dens bulldozed for another road that never happened, was never intended to happen. Turned into a no-man’s land where the militias dump bodies, sometimes burning them. Another reason to keep the windows shut, the oily smoke reeking of gasoline and barbecue. As though anyone cared to identify yesterday’s victims. It’s tomorrow’s they’re worried about.    

“Dark thoughts and the sadness he often felt after sinking into the past, reliving events of sixty or seventy years ago – more vivid to his mind now than those of last week – led him back to one place only: Persia, his nights with Dashti. He could see the gaunt face, oversized forehead, high cheekbones over sunken cheeks, eyes set in deep sockets but burning bright as cigarettes in the night. Their nights of drinking wine and reciting poetry, master and pupil making themselves dizzy with the sinuous rhythms and haunting rhymes of the quatrains, mostly those of Rumi and Khayyam. Dashti recited this one when I called him ‘teacher’ . . .

yek chand ba-kaudaki

“There was a time I studied at the Master’s feet
Then for a time, was drunk on my own mastery;
Listen till the story’s end, and see what became of me:
I came like water – and turned to dust.

“Now he was marooned in the big house as Beirut tore itself to pieces again, a civil war that had already raged for longer than the Second World War. We thought they were fighting over territory and wealth, that they would never destroy the hotel district or the banks, the banks for God’s sake; else what was the point of fighting? But we missed the point.

“The newsreels seven years ago already, or is it eight? Grinning bearded guerrillas pouring fine wine down the drain at the Hotel St-Georges before torching it. The banks looted and burned. They took her jewelry, the pearl necklace and ruby and sapphire parure I bought for her in Tehran. Not that she wore it more than twice.

“He sighed and looked up at the sunbeam, now coppery and horizontal as the sun must have sunk almost to the sea out past the old merchants’ quarter of Gemmayzé that sloped down the hill to the port. Could be a searchlight for all he knew, with the windows closed and shuttered. It’s so stuffy in here I can hardly breathe. I’ll go to the kitchen and open the window – hopefully Maqsud will not chatter.

“Maqsud: a tall Egyptian from Assouan, a black man of indeter- minate age, somewhere between forty and sixty. Terrible posture made him look older than he probably was. You always knew when he was coming by the creaking of his long black shoes: ‘SQUEAK’ went the left one, a milder ‘squeak’ went the right, SQUEAK squeak SQUEAK squeak. ‘At least he can’t sneak up on one,’ my niece would say with her impish grin. How I miss her! It feels like this house has had no feminine presence in decades. Actually that’s not far off: well, a decade anyway. Makes me feel all dried up, ready to blow away.

“In the kitchen Maqsud was listening to the radio, the BBC Arabic Service. At least the BBC presents a nice, predictable distortion. Now the Americans are trying to prop up the so-called government of this so-called republic; the newsreader, probably a Palestinian to judge by his accent, sounds ever-so-slightly amused. What a tragedy, the American Embassy bombing last month. What a year! First the Israeli invasion in June, then Gemayel, then Sabra and Shatila. One horror after another.

“‘I’ll have a coffee, Maqsud, bring it to the library. Any news?’ ‘No, khawaga, nothing much, the Americans are giving arms to the Lebanese army but the ‘Progressives’ are too strong for them in the Shouf; there is going to be a lot of trouble there. They say Kissinger has agreed with Israel to divide Lebanon up into cantons, with Syria taking the Bekaa, Israel the south up to the Litani River. Beirut will be an international city.’

“‘Is that what they said on the news, Maqsud?’

“‘No, khawaga, that’s what they say in the souk. The radio just talks about conferences and meetings – kalam fadhi, empty talk.’”

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