Book Review: Forsaken by Birds

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Saturday 1 May 2021

Ismail Yabrir put a brilliant explanation for writing the novel in one of his characters words 'writing is the justification of what life did not explain'

book cover

Manbozo Al-Asafeer (Forsaken by Birds), Ismail Yabrir, Cairo, Elain Publishing House2020

No novelist can forget that his real mission is story telling. Master writers are the best storytellers in the world, it is as simple as that. What Ismail Yabrir did in his novel ‘Forsaken by Birds’ is that he showed his skill and talent in expanding many story lines and grouping them again towards the end to form an airtight story that is a memorable reading experience for the reader and critics alike.

Yabrir put a brilliant explanation for writing the novel in one of his characters words “writing is the justification of what life did not explain”; a great perception to have in mind while creating a novel.

The story takes place in Al-Ein, Algeria. the time span is about a century, and among the many writing styles used in the novel was the story within a story method, evoking the famous book ‘One Thousand and One Nights’.

Forsaken by Birds is a novel that needs to be read at least twice to appreciate the storyline, the narration, the information, the characters, and their relations. The second time, literature buffs should have a chart to make the connections between the characters, the places, and the events taking place in their created lives.

The first person that the reader encounters other than the writer/ narrator is Mark the First, the great grandfather of the writer, Mark the Second. His description, according to the people who knew him, is “a man like that should not have died”. Such a phrase portrays the gods among men; rare to come by in life, people that we can hear about and never meet in real life.

Mark is a German who forged French papers, came to Algeria, married a local woman, renounced his old identity, and became some sort of saint in his community. The novel is about his life and that of his descendants. 

The writer formed his novel like a mosaic to form a whole; a complicated novel that seems like a painting forged by a master. Every detail mentioned as if it is just an end by itself, turns out to be a whole story on its own, such as the arrival of Mark to Algeria, making his life before that fact just a minor part of the story.

But it turns out to be a whole interesting life: kids, wife, job, crime, changing identity — which makes cutting all ties with his past the more interesting. He found himself in another country, culture, religion, and different people; he blended in and reinvented himself. 

The grandson’s life is the story within the story; someone who left life behind and decided to write a novel. With the help of an online girlfriend, he gave his characters life, her story became part of his novel, her suicide attempt, the men in her life, and her attempt to write her own novel, all became part of a novel that seems to complicate the novel yet make it a page turner for the reader; a parallel life that occurs in the present while the past forms the novel’s core. 

Another style the writer employed was to jump through time and give an account of what happened to his characters during the time gap, changing the person, explaining the relation to the ancestors, or just mentioning the name and leave the reader to recall the history or return to the previous chapters to figure it out; or do the passionate thing by creating his or her character chart.

Once the relations are clear, the roots of the whole family revealed, we find a Palestinian whose grandmother is Jewish who stayed behind due to loving an Algerian man; her family probably turned Israeli and maybe have her ancestral house in Palestine.

We find a French prostitute helping the rebels during the liberation war against the French occupying forces. And of course, there is the story of a bird; a Goldfinch brought from Europe and mixed with the local birds, forming a new breed. The symbolism here is clear; Algeria over a century has been a melting pot, between occupying French forces, to immigrants and Palestinian refugees. The question of national identity in a multicultural society is brought into light. 

Showing that mix in Algerian society could be seen from various points of views. First, there is cosmopolitan Algeria, formed by many ethnicities and religions. Then there are the cousins fighting over the land in Palestine, both carrying the same blood and genes, related by birth even in close history.

Like all artists, Yabrir has the notion of peace for humanity, and due to the well-crafted novel, and without coming out and saying it bluntly, the absurdity of war in the Middle East is in the background. The fact that we are all humans no matter where we come from and who our ancestors are can help us resolve our differences within the big human family.

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