The Bookseller’s Notebooks – By Jalal Barjas, Paul G. Starkey (Translator)
“There are stages in life that have to end for us to preserve the bright side of the picture—and that depends on the memory of joy to fight the sorrow we have been given.”
Some might recall how I set out to read more translated books this year, fiction and nonfiction. This little mission has led me to some fantastic reads, including the poetry collection I reviewed back in April, but I never expected it to lead me to what I now consider one of my all-time favorite books.
Earlier this year, a relatively simple cover caught my eye at an indie bookstore in Oakland. The title, The Bookseller’s Notebooks, told me little about the story, but I was inexplicably drawn to it. After skimming the blurb on the back, I noticed a few buzzwords that make a book an instant buy for me; a schizophrenic mc, multiple POVs, and, you guessed it, translated fiction.
The Bookseller’s Notebooks, written by Jalal Barjas and translated from Arabic by Paul G. Starkey, is a vastly underrated, subtle, and beautifully poetic novel set in the city of Amman between 1947 and 2019. In it, we follow Ibrahim, a bookseller and avid reader, who loses his book kiosk and finds himself living on the street.
Navigating undiagnosed schizophrenia, he assumes the identities of the protagonists in his favorite novels.
Ibrahim commits a series of crimes, robbing banks and houses and even committing murder disguised as Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Said Mahran from The Thief and the Dogs, among others. He unwittingly becomes a modern-day Robin Hood, taking from the most wealthy and corrupt to help the abject poor and impose his idea of justice.
Drowning in profound loneliness, the voices that fill Ibrahim’s head become louder and more demanding. He is slowly pushed past the brink of his sanity and morality, reaching a point where he believes the only way to end this descent into madness is to end his life along with it. That is, until he meets a mysterious woman who changes his life.
This woman’s story and others are told through notebooks and multiple narrators. Simultaneously painful and mind-altering, this is a fragmented tale of the marginalized people who are too often ignored or used as tragic examples by society.
Barjas’s exceptional novel uses generational trauma, society’s marginalized individuals, and everyday injustices to acknowledge a global social system that leaves too many of our most vulnerable behind.
Through a unique cast of characters, Baras highlights the struggles of people who want desperately to live full lives but cannot due to circumstances beyond their control.
I am honestly stunned by how overlooked this innovative Arabic novel is. As I write this review, it has only 10 ratings on Goodreads (one of those being mine)! Barjas is an award-winning Jordanian poet and novelist, having written two poetry collections, many short stories, and four novels. I was disappointed to find that his other books have yet to be translated into English, but I will be on the lookout for any future translations or releases from Barjas.
This novel is relatively unknown, and I wasn’t able to find it at our local library, but don’t worry, The Bookseller’s Notebooks is available to order from Bookshop Benicia. If you’re anything like me and believe that the best books are meant to be shared and discussed, I suggest you order an extra copy to give to a loved one. I anticipate this novel taking off as soon as some celebrity book club finds it, so get it before it sells out!
- 6 cups frozen peaches
- 1 bottle of rosé (I used Hand on Heart Rose Wine, an alcohol-removed wine available at SendSips)
- 1 tbsp honey (optional)
This one is simple. Blend everything together in a blender, serve, and enjoy!