‘The Mehlis Report’: A Genre-bending Historico-fantastical Murder-mystery

From a review in Full Stop Magazine:

download (1)Rabee Jaber’s The Mehlis Report, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, is a genre-bending historico-fantastical murder-mystery that moves the borders between life and death. The novel centers on Lebanon’s highest-profile murder — that of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.  Although the narrative goes so far as to visit with Hariri’s ghost, we find neither culprit nor resolution.

The book is set in 2005, just before the release of the titular “Mehlis Report.” The United Nations report-writing team, led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, was charged with revealing who was responsible for the February 2005 bombing of Hariri’s motorcade. As such, Jaber’s novel is steeped in history, albeit of the very recent past.

Though the book centers on solving a murder, the protagonist is not even an amateur detective; he’s just an ordinary upper-class Beiruti. Saman Yarid is a forty-year-old architect whose life has stalled, much like the life of the city. As Yarid walks between home, work, and meetings with his lovers, he maps the city for us, including the area near the St. Georges Hotel, destroyed in the explosion that killed Hariri.

Ostensibly, we — like Yarid, and like the UN team charged with writing the report — are interested in knowing who committed this crime. Who killed Rafik Hariri? Who is to blame for the slow-burning violence that grips Beirut and threatens our protagonist and his lovers?

These questions are indeed at the heart of Jaber’s novel. But to answer them, the book doesn’t investigate what “really” happened to Hariri’s motorcade. It doesn’t leave Yarid’s ordinary world and seek access to special or secret information: phone records, bank accounts. Instead, the book looks at the surface of events; it echoes the gossip on the streets. From a “news report:”

Ahmad Hijazi, a businessman, said he had come to this restaurant (Wimpy’s) to read the paper and try to guess what Mehlis would say in his report, and figure out if Mehlis knew the full truth, or if the report would be more general. And Salim al-Halw, a bank employee, said he’s hoping for the best, especially since Germans are famous for their precision.

The deeper truth of events, or the solution to our “mystery,” isn’t found by Yarid, or Mehlis, or any exceptional character who traces information to an ultimate culprit. Instead, we search for truth by mapping the ordinary objects, thoughts, and people in the city.

In this, The Mehlis Report is similar to Elias Khoury’s 1981 novel, White Masks (translated into English by Maia Tabet in 2010), in which an unnamed sleuth examines the “wonderful, dreadful,” violent death of the fictional Khalil Ahmed Jaber, also killed in Beirut. In White Masks, the nameless amateur detective searches for the murderers by interviewing relatives and neighbors. He never comes to any conclusion; he only gives us stories piled on top of more stories.

But Mehlis differs from White Masks in that Jaber’s novel leaps the realist’s canvas and crosses the line into death. We don’t just map the city and listen in on ordinary people’s conversations. We also visit the (ordinary) afterlife. Keep reading at Full Stop Magazine.

Also, if you missed it: 50 Great Lebanese Novels and a 5-Book Starter Kit

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11 thoughts on “‘The Mehlis Report’: A Genre-bending Historico-fantastical Murder-mystery

  1. Always one to enjoy a historical crime thriller based on truth this sounds slightly disappointing. I like a novel that refers to the facts and can help me to understand more about the world around me. Whilst this may be a good read if you remember that it is ‘light touch’ on the facts I am not sure that this will now be added to my reading list at this time.

    1. Well, I suppose it depends on your notion of truth/Truth. Indeed, he probably didn’t visit the afterlife as research for this book, but I certainly do believe it can help the reader re-see herself / her world, like any good literatures. And, as for other sorts of truth, after reading it twice I could practically draw a map of the Ashrafiyyeh neighborhood in Beirut.

    1. Please do read it! I would hate to think my review turned someone off of a book I loved.

      1. I never rule out a book purely on a review because everyone has different tastes. I will be reading the book with the same reservations I had before reading your review. I will let you know my thoughts afterwards.

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