Sabah Sanhouri's "Paradise"The last resort
Paradise can be found at 4 Martyr Imran Imran Street. The street originally went by a different name and was home to "the biggest casino in the country". It is perhaps not a complete coincidence that it is now the address of the Paradise agency, which promises desperate people a way out of their miserable existences – for a fee.
After that, however, there's no going back: they have decided to end their lives, but the question as to whether they do ultimately reach their intended objective, of course, remains unanswered.
The people involved don't seem to be able to find a solution better than death. And Salam, a young writer who has been suffering from writer's block for some time, is seeking an urgent end to her existential crisis.
Aged 32, she describes herself as a "loser"; she doesn’t hesitate for long, clutching at the straw that is offered to her by responding to a job advert that promises a "good salary", requiring nothing from her but "a talent for writing" and "outstanding skills of observation".
Salam seems to lack nothing in the way of creative imagination (her terrific way with words at many points in the text are testament to this) and has no qualms about entering the employ of this dubious agency and using her writing skills to compose "death scripts" for its overwhelmingly female clientele.
In practice, this means that Salam determines the manner in which clients are to die – from a hairpin stuck into an electric socket, by hanging, or by jumping off a balcony.
Although troubled by the job, Salam sees it as morally justifiable: "Anything goes in a country like ours: suicide, murder, corruption, robbery, ignorance, even satiation; all of these things are legitimate and documentable and justify opening an agency that fosters them and allows their full splendour to flourish".
This sense of cynicism corresponds to the desperation felt by many of the people in the novel, who seem lonely and hopeless, or are in unhappy marriages, like young May, who is bound to an insensitive, cold husband who forgets their first wedding anniversary and views her as little more than an object of his sexual desire.
May doesn't for a second consider divorcing him; instead, she chooses the path that leads to the ominous agency.
The idea at the heart of Sanhouri's novel – exploiting people who are at a loose end and establishing a profitable business on their sense of resignation – is not without its wry, whimsical charm. The smooth operation of this unsettling machinery of suicide is completed by the presence of a photographer, who films the death and documents it properly, so to speak.
It's a process that calls to mind the dark side of our image-mad media age, which sees photographs and footage of the dying appear online.
In this regard, the novel functions as a parable of a society slipping increasingly into an existential crisis. Several times throughout the novel, the question is posed as to what "humanity fundamentally wants in its heart of hearts".
The answer that is given doesn't seem to be the right one: "The search for meaning and a true objective".
If this answer were true, the agency of death would not exist and new victims would not find themselves straying through its doors every day.
The characters who appear in the novel alongside Salam do occasionally seem a little wooden; there's a touch of slapstick to the way they behave, and their characteristics are exaggerated to the point of grotesqueness.
We meet a poet ruined by drink, a photographer suffering from bouts of tremors and a typical rich businessman who does not flinch from having his jewellery-draped wife killed.
None of these people are multifaceted individuals with whom we might be able to identify, which is also due to the deliberately grotesque, anti-psychological narrative style.
Nevertheless, the novel has its own consistent sound, a sound that lingers and is testament to the author's great stylistic talents.
Sanhouri has already received numerous awards for her writing and is founder of #OneDayFiction, a cultural project championing budding writers.
Paradise is a dark novel, strange and filled with black humour, and Christine Battermann's German translation deftly brings this to the fore. It is to Schiler & Muecke's credit that they were able to discover Sabah Sanhouri and introduce her work to the German book market.
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu
"Paradise" by Sudanese novelist Sabah Sanhouri, translated into German from the Arabic by Christine Battermann, published by Schiler & Muecke 2022, 168 pages.