Hoda Barakat’s “The Night Post”: Revealing Voices and a Question of Structure

Lebanese novelist Hoda Barakat, one of the finalists for the 2015 Man Booker International, has written six novels, three of which have been translated into English. She won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for her novel The Tiller of Waters and the al-Nagid Award for The Stone of Laughter. In 2002 she became Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and then the Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite National in 2008. Her latest novel is The Night Post:

By Mahmoud Hosny

In her recent novel The Night Post (Dar Al-Adab, 2018, 128 p.), the Lebanese novelist Hoda Barakat (1952) worked on building her sixth book with five letters, where the senders will never again meet the receivers. It seems that the letters’ senders are not waiting for replies or explanations from the other side. It is rather the need to reveal things to them; the need to write about deep emotions that can’t be said aloud to any one in the places they inhabit.

The five voices of these five letter-writers aren’t related to one another in any way, except through the postman who carries their messages and is trapped in the cycle of war in an unnamed county. The situation the postman finds himself in makes the letters just stories, “Stuck as dead papers, in the corners of empty streets.”

These are letters without addresses. Instead, they’re just titled: “To my father,” “To my brother,” “To my sweet mother,” or “To my dear… because that’s how the letters should begin.” Furthermore, there’s no hint as to where the senders live, because they are always in a temporary place, such as a hotel room, or in an airport waiting for a plane.

With violence surrounds them on all sides, the novel’s characters, who are all Arabs, travel to escape or to seek refuge. Even the more fortunate ones seem to be suffocating as they seek a fresh start elsewhere. But the refuge that the West seems to offer is mostly an illusion, and the characters all have to face their failures.

The postman’s chapter appears as a novelistic technique, a center at which the voices meet. But in a country without street address or house numbers as a consequence of war, what kind of work can he do?

If we see the previous question as an existential one, we can also face a technical question about the ability of the postman to serve as a thin thread, connecting the five stories, without any other relation between them.

Is this “postman” as a way of architecting the novel enough to turn these free-standing voices from “fictional letters” into a “novel,” without intersections between the letters writers and each other? Intersections, Interactions, interventions, or perhaps interrogations—any of these words seem to be the ways in which we talk about how a novel is built. Yet why we should need to classify this sensitive, unlabeled text under a genre to which it mostly doesn’t belong?