Disappearing Act


By Ian McGillis

A review of Blackbodying by Dimitri Nasrallah

Published on April 1, 2005

Dimitri Nasrallah

DC Books

The immigrant experience is one of the central themes – some might say the central theme – in contemporary fiction. Finding a fresh perspective on it, and a style to match, is no simple matter. Blackbodying, the debut novel by Lebanese Montrealer Dimitri Nasrallah, manages exactly that, among other things.

The title refers to a scientific phenomenon whereby a body absorbs all surrounding light and reflects none. The parallel with the lives of immigrants, who can feel they are disappearing, and that their only claims to identity are memories that have no outlet in their new context, couldn’t be more apt.

Blackbodying’s narrative, while mostly moving forward in time, effectively takes the reader backward, farther away from the Lebanese origins of its narrator. The opening section, set up like a W.G. Sebald reminiscence complete with accompanying photographs, looks like a conventional memoir but in fact shows a family already in the process of dissolving. They’re in Greece, forced out of Lebanon by civil war, and the father is withdrawing further still. Eventually the narrator, an only child, is taken to Canada by his mother.

The book then jumps forward to find the narrator as a more or less typical, if emotionally disengaged, teenager and young man, first in Toronto and later in Montreal. He spends a period of convalescence with his mother, working on a novel called A Canadian Fiction. The final section consists of that novel, in which an older Lebanese cab driver, alienated and isolated within Canada, becomes obsessed with saving a young woman whose voice he hears on his dispatcher. Later, in hospital, he is assisted by a younger man who may or may not be the original narrator.

What saves Blackbodying from disjointedness is the skill with which Nasrallah changes voice and tone to suit each section. The childhood passages hit just the right note of innocence and bewilderment, the middle section has a sort of immigrant/Gen-X feel reminiscent of the Bosnian Danielo Kis, while the final section, with its frequent changes in form, mirrors the disintegrating consciousness of its protagonist. By the end, the experience of immigration has been captured uncannily. On this evidence, there’s little limit to where Nasrallah might go. mRb

Ian McGillis writes about books and visual arts for the Montreal Gazette.



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