Jalal Barjas’ novel “Notebooks of the Bookseller” was awarded the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) on May 25, 2021, selected from a list of six nominated novels as the best work of fiction published in Arabic between July 2019 and August 2020. As stated by the jury, the book was chosen for its ability to tread beneath society’s common masks and reveal a tragic reality, plunging into the depths of human nature to draw a dark portrait of the world.
Jalal Barjas is a Jordanian author and poet, born in 1970. Initially working as an aeronautical engineer, he currently runs the Jordanian Narrative Laboratory and hosts a radio program called “House of the Novel.” He has previously published two collections of poetry, as well as short stories and novels such as “The Earthquakes” and “Guillotine of the Dreamer,” which won literary awards in 2013 and 2014. His novel “Women of the Five Senses” was nominated for the IPAF award in 2019.
Praised by critics for its rich, refined prose and captivating storyline, “Notebooks of the Bookseller” is a true fresco of contemporary Jordan and its economic and social upheavals over four generations. The story takes place mainly in Jordan—in Amman, Madaba, and Aqaba in particular, but also in Moscow, between 1947 and 2019.
“Notebooks of the Bookseller” is a true fresco of contemporary Jordan and its economic and social upheavals over four generations.
The novel chronicles several characters, each facing personal issues centered around a theme: the nostalgia of a lost home, whose sweetness and harmony contrasts with the surrounding chaos. Through these moving individual stories, the author reveals the Jordanian society of the second half of the 20th century in all its injustices, inequalities, and hypocrisy. He achieves this literary feast by adopting a writing style rich in detail, sometimes challenging in its slow pace, yet essential to draw up an almost living panorama of the society he describes.
Structured around a series of notebook excerpts, the novel represents a fragmented and moving account of the marginalized in society—the voiceless, whose existence is often unacknowledged. In the stories of peasants suffocating under the yoke of feudal lords, Palestinian refugees wandering the roads after the Nakba, and illegitimate children roaming the streets and falling into crime, the author draws portraits of the oppressed, in a narrative that reveals the complexities of Jordanian and Arab society. The reader encounters characters lost in a swiftly changing urbanization, caught between modernity and traditional values, in a system in which they no longer find their place.
A connecting thread gives coherence to this effervescence of narratives: the story of Ibrahim, a young, cultured, and shy bookseller and avid reader, who takes refuge in his books to escape the harsh reality. The loss of his home and his bookstore slowly drive the character to sink into madness and delinquency, crushed by the solitude and violence of a dehumanizing system. After a suicide attempt, Ibrahim sees the light at the end of the tunnel when he finds love, in the person of a mysterious woman who gives him a taste for life.
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Ibrahim then becomes a true Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, finding his salvation in a mission of social justice that makes him embody the demands of the working class’ thirst for revenge against their oppressors. In a tragi-comic way, he adopts the identity of the fictional characters he once adored, underlining thence the fragile mental state into which he has plunged.
Barjas introduces us to flawed individuals, plagued by doubt, anguish, and violent impulses that engage the reader in a true quest of discovering human nature.
“Notebooks of the Bookseller” is a tale of corruption and its victims, of an absurd world devoid of meaning, and of characters dealing with nihilism and depression. Barjas introduces us to flawed individuals, plagued by doubt, anguish, and violent impulses that engage the reader in a true quest of discovering human nature. Through the journey, we are led to note the psychological mutation that the various characters undergo, as they are confronted with repression and deprivation.
Thus, most of the characters in the novel transform under the weight of events, based on their dynamic and shocking realities. For example, Ibrahim’s father, after a long stay in prison, develops a withdrawn, introverted, and fearful personality, while Ibrahim himself changes considerably throughout the novel, finding a new meaning to life in his role as Robin Hood. Majida and Asma, two important female characters, turn to prostitution to solve their economic woes.
These developments, often negative and tragic in their implications, highlight the auto-destructive nature of Jordanian society. Through his work, the author makes a subtle social critique, portraying how inequality, immorality, impunity, and predatory capitalism can devour a society and distance it from the values it publicly promotes.
The author portrays how inequality, immorality, impunity, and predatory capitalism can devour a society
The reader can also interpret a political critique of the Arab world as a whole. Namely, the persistence of feudalism, the incestuous relations between politicians and the business world, its venality, class contempt, and lack of compassion and empathy—all of which lead to the alienation of a popular class left in ignorance and indigence.
However, “Notebooks of the Bookseller” is not a novel calling for despair and pessimism. On the contrary, the author states that it is necessary to “reach the depths of pains for finding new dreams and standing up once more with hopes on firmer ground.” This belief runs throughout the novel, in the life of Ibrahim, who rises from the abyss to take on a new role. The author deals with the theme of suicide without judgment, developing the reasons that can push a man to such extremes, and showing how a simple inspiring encounter can restore the taste for life.
Readers who are passionate about the Arab world and its history will appreciate the narrative, which follows key events that shook the region, such as the tragedy of the Nakba. For those interested in sociology and politics, the novel will be a rich anthropological study of Arab societies. Moreover, anyone who is passionate about literature will be enchanted by the author’s elegant, poetic, and vocabulary-rich writing, which makes the book a real page-turner.
After receiving this year’s IPAF for fiction, Barjas commented on his achievement: “Thank you to the International Prize for Arabic Fiction which has opened all these beautiful paths to readers so my words could reach them,” he said. “Through these words, I endeavored to sow joy into the field of humanity.”
Sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Language Center, in addition to a monetary award of US$50,000, the prize includes the translation of the novel into English, in hopes to generate further international recognition and an expanded readership for the Arabic-speaking author. Hence, many more readers will soon be able to enjoy the incredible narratives and touching depiction of human struggle that has made “Notebooks of the Bookseller” an award-winning novel.