The Boy from Aleppo Who Painted the War by Sumia Sukkar (Eyewear - November 2013)
What better way to start a new year than by reading the first novel by a new publishing house, written by a young debut author. Every day we are inundated by images and shocking reports from Syria yet this book provides insightful new points of view on a number of topics regarding life in the Middle East. At the heart of this tale is, however, the age-old cruelty and pointlessness of war itself.
This is the story of Adam, a teenager with Asperger's. Despite the challenges that come with his medical condition, Adam is an adorable youth, enthusiastic to express himself through painting. He is not only very talented when is comes to portraying his environment through drawing, but Adam is also an artist with a heightened sensibility who understands colour to be an emotional force. Indeed he perceives colour as something that is flowing through people and surrounding them—like an aura. Adam’s talent is an integral part of his personality and although the words the author places on his tongue are at times tainted by an awkward naivety, Adam often utters a truth which his friends and relatives can only vaguely grasp. He says things like “anger is the darkest colour” or “my heart felt like a nest of crows hatching”.
Adam and his family start out in the relatively comfortable surroundings of modern day, pre-war Aleppo. They are not without domestic difficulties; Adam’s illness is not easy to manage especially as Adam’s mother is no longer with them and his older sister Yasmine has to take on the duties of cooking and caring. Like all teenagers Adam is strongly influenced by what he sees on TV and tends to use references to Hollywood blockbusters and consumerism in general. Before long the war is having an impact and it seems to creep into his life like a ghost. Steadily his domestic situation worsens; first there a reduced food supply in the market then the electricity fails. Soon Adam’s extended family moves in with them. The danger becomes so tangible that Adam is no longer allowed to play in the street. Things go rapidly downhill from there: Adam finds his neighbours’ dead bodies, Yasmine is kidnapped and raped, and Khalid’s hands are hacked off. Eventually the family has no choice but to flee to Damascus with only the bare essentials.
Sumia Sukkar’s present tense, first-person narration doesn’t shy away from graphic descriptions and unapologetic statements but without using political jargon or generic accusations. Much of the effect is due to an understated voice and the intensity with which the moment is captured. This book can be compared to many successful novels but for me it resonates particularly with The Road by Cormac McCarthy in as much as the storytelling focuses on stark facts perceived in a highly original manner which have the capacity to generate deep-rooted emotions. The trigger for these sentiments is in the detail as we learn how in desperation Adam decides to cook some of his books as he is convinced that the leather binding has nutritional properties. Later he decides to paint his pictures in blood to be more truthful to the experience. Like the boy in McCarthy’s book, Adam is utterly clueless about what is happening to him and it is his older sister Yasmine that provides him with guidance and explanations. Another parallel to McCarthy is, of course, that this is a coming of age tale and apocalyptic journey rolled into one gripping story.
This book is full of remarkable angles. What stands out for me is how creativity is not seen as a commercial enterprise or casual pursuit in times of boredom, but as a vital force with which more vulnerable individuals are often gifted. Adam is an unlikely yet likable hero, who embraces his talents as he embraces his fate and gets on with life as best he can. It is his creativity that provides him with a purpose in life and gives him a sense of identity.
Furthermore, I found it interesting how this book deals with up-to-the-minute issues but simultaneously touches at timeless truths. Sumia Sukkar really allows us to identify with her characters: their hopes, their fears, their helplessness and desperation as normality seems to collapse right in front of their eyes. Yet despite all hardship they keep going towards Damascus, determined to find a brighter tomorrow.
Not bad at all for a first novel.