Jonathan Littell’s Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell, is one of those rare books that elaborates its value on every page. An account of revolutionary activity in Syria from three years ago, recorded over three weeks, the book, according to Littell, is “a document, not a work of literature.” It is likely both of these things, but it is more importantly a book that has escaped Syria — for three years the most dangerous country in the world for journalists — and therefore something of a (harrowing) wonder. Any country where journalists die at such a rate — at least 17 foreign journalists were killed there in 2014 — is by definition one we struggle to understand. And, as Patrick Cockburn has recently noted, the deficit of completed books from Syria, in addition to periodic reportage, means that we likely don’t understand the conflict in any robust sense.
So Littell’s book is urgent, even if he is not exactly a journalist. Since he’s best known for his internationally controversial blockbuster The Kindly Ones, a nearly 1,000-page study of the perversity of Nazism, some readers might be surprised to find him playing the role of war correspondent. But they shouldn’t be. Littell has filed “zone of conflict” pieces with the London Review of Books (and elsewhere) for years. He also spent much of the 1990s working for Action Against Hunger in places like Afghanistan and Chechnya. He’s not a neophyte or an expert. He’s just a reliable guide who happens to render the war zone in pellucid, ultra-precise prose.
Although Syrian Notebooks features an update from October of 2014, it properly begins in January of 2012, when Littell accepts an assignment from Le Monde to report on the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Homs. As Littell explains it, the FSA at the time “still believed its primary mission was defensive, to protect the opposition neighborhoods and the demonstrations from the regime snipers and the feared shabbiha.” It seems that Littell was able to enter the city and embed himself with the FSA because of the connections of his photographer, Mani, who is given a pseudonym, like so many others in the book, because Littell fears “reprisal against them or their surviving families.”
And be warned: there is much violent reprisal in Syrian Notebooks. There is also humor and community despite the omnipresence of state oppression. And almost all of it is surprising to read. Littell’s pointedly aesthetic decision to deliver events in a day-by-day, documentary style is a good one: the effect is that it is impossible to anticipate what is coming next — the reader’s eyes stay open.
And against Littell’s claim that the book is merely a document: there is a pronounced motif, one that affords the book its considerable literary quality. On many days, especially those when he is not jarred awake by machine-gun fire, Littell begins by recounting his dreams and nightmares from the night before. This theme of a dream that becomes a nightmare, of revolutionary aspirations perverted and destroyed, hangs over every word of Syrian Notebooks. And Littell’s opening declaration on the theme is worth quoting at length:
It starts, as always, with a dream, a dream of youth, liberty, and collective joy; and it ends, as all too often, in a nightmare. The nightmare still goes on and will last much longer than the dream: a vague and remote nightmare, highly cinematographic, a kaleidoscope of mass executions, orange jumpsuits, and severed heads, triumphant columns of looted American armor, beards and black masks, and a black banner all-too-reminiscent of the pirate flags of our childhoods.
Spectacular images that have served to mask, even erase, those forming the undertow: thousands of naked bodies tortured and meticulously recorded by an obscenely precise administration, barrels of explosives tossed at random on neighborhoods full of women and children, toxic gasses sending hundreds into foaming convulsions, flags, parades, posters, a tall smiling ophthalmologist and his triumphant “re-election.” The medieval barbarians on one side, the pitiless dictator on the other, the only two images we retain of a reality far more complex.
Writing of this quality is rare, and Syrian Notebooks is a first-rate work of war reportage that may come to be seen as an indispensable piece of literature. It is also, for the most unfortunate of possible reasons, a sui generis book that demands our attention now.