Abbas Beydoun is tired of excuses. The 72-year-old Lebanese author and poet urges readers and writers to avoid complacency – and to always look beyond the surface.
To explain why, he highlights the central theme of his acclaimed novel, The Autumn of Innocence, which tackles the nature of tyranny.
“It’s not good enough to look at violence as just something abnormal or new to us,” he says.
“Violence doesn’t just fall from the sky. It comes from our ethics and our behaviours. It comes from ourselves and we have to be aware of that.”
Published last year by Beirut publisher Dar Al Saqi, the novel struck a chord with Arab readers and won the literature category of the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards. Beydoun received his award, including a cash prize of Dh750,000, during a ceremony at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair yesterday.
Set in an Arab village, The Autumn of Innocence revolves around the relationship between a domineering father and his easy-going son. Dismayed by his son’s intransigence, the father arranges his murder.
Beydoun describes the novel’s surreal narrative style as “fantasia” – pronouns shift rapidly and the work is laced with symbolic names and imagery. The lyrical aspect of the novel stems from his poetry, for which he is arguably more renowned.
Born in the village of Sur, in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, Beydoun worked as a journalist before publishing numerous volumes of poetry, which have been translated into various languages, including French and German.
Selections of his work have also been translated into English and published in Banipal magazine. His 2002 novel, Tahlil damm, was also published in English, under the title Blood Test.
Beydoun credits Tyre’s coastal landscape for influencing his writing.
“My work is concerned mostly with this idea of returning, in all its various ways,” he says.
“A lot of it started in Tyre. I remember one of my earliest writing experiences – when I was young, I would sit by the coast and write poems about the sea in front of me. Then I wrote more lines about the buildings around it. Then before I knew it, I was also writing about the city.”
In The Autumn of Innocence, a fictional village and the events that happen there serve as a metaphor for Arab countries currently in turmoil.
“When you live in an environment that is tyrannical, when injustice seeps in from the power dynamics to the political and social, and when you are living that day in and day out – well, violence becomes almost second nature,” he says.
“It is played out in relationships with men and woman and parents over children.”
Another striking aspect of the novel is how stark it is. There is no escaping the enveloping dread, and the father and son are seemingly resigned to their fates.
Beydoun is dismissive of the suggestion that novels should necessarily provide a sliver of hope.
“As an author, I allow the reader to interpret the work as they see fit,” he says.
“It is not my job to oppose any interpretation – but I would like to state the novel is, in itself, a pessimistic art. It provides a sense of checks and balance to society. It is very rare to find a novel that says society is doing a grand job.”
He adds that pessimism suits Arab writers. “That desperation allows them to become brave and express their ideas,” he says. “They have less to lose.”
Beydoun says more of that bravery is required from his peers. He puts the lack of daring Arab writers down to a warped regional perception of what it means to be an intellectual.
“There is this idea that the intellectual is someone who reads this or that – you can call such people knowledgable at best,” he says.
“The intellectual is one who poses ideas and fresh perspectives. They often have a good opinion of themselves and they feel they have the right to express their ideas.”
• The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, concludes on May 2. www.adbookfair.com