We asked Madeleine Thien to annotate this short story, written in Montreal two years ago, to give us a sense of her process. The footnotes, written from Beirut as Thien prepared for the release of her latest novel, provide a window into Thien's own life as the story progressed, creating parallel narratives between artist and art.
Joseph sat across from the others. He was a stocky man whose every movement seemed sudden and whose nickname, Abu Victor, with Victor pronounced in the French way, had come to him when his son was born twenty-five years ago just as, fifty years ago, his own father had become Abu Joseph when Joseph himself came into this world. It was common.
The four men sat around the patio table. It was late afternoon and sunlight sliced a line through the wedding cake, cutting a diagonal shadow from its decorative roses to its perimeter, reminding Abu Victor of a sundial. The deck creaked, the whole patio had been declared structurally unsound, but the owner11Last year, the new landlord, P., repossessed our apartment, claiming his parents were moving in. Un menteur, of course, and when we left, he simply found new tenants and raised the rent. We didn't fight. The building was broken, and the neighbourhood, Mile End, was making me sorrowful. It was time to leave. But the thing... was too poor to fix it. Finally, last year, the owner had sold the whole building to a developer. Abu Victor and his wife, Nadia, would be moving at the end of month to a smaller apartment in a different neighbourhood. The timing was right. Unlike their neighbours, they were not fighting the eviction.
But what about the cake? Abu Victor had wondered, waking suddenly two nights ago. Nadia was away, visiting her sister in Vancouver, and in her absence, their bed had felt wide and uneven; it had seemed to tilt and slide him onto the floor. He had gotten up. The room was a furnace. In a daze, Abu Victor went to the fridge and opened the freezer door. How long he stood there, he couldn’t say. Chilly air washed against his surface. At last, he removed the cake, which was encased in plastic wrap22... that made it hard was P. himself, who couldn't leave us in peace. "What does the fucker want now?" my love asked, each time P. banged at our window. It was early summer. Day after day, we packed. We had to shed at least a thousand books. and had been in the freezer since 2011. He set it on the counter.
He waited until 5 a.m. to call his best friend, George.
“Catastrophe,” was all Abu Victor could say at first. He feared that different words might pull the imaginary knife out of his gut, cause him to bleed imaginary blood and die an imaginary death. “Catastrophe.”
“We can’t move the cake into the new apartment. But we can’t throw it out either.”
“What does your wife say?”
“She doesn’t say anything. Nadia says nothing.” He was crying now and he hoped George couldn’t tell. “She won’t be back until the weekend.”
His friend had proposed a solution. On Friday, George would bring Tony and Elias to Abu Victor’s house, and together they would eat the wedding cake.33Ten years ago, on my first night in this city, my love took me up the 283 steps of the Oratoire Saint-Joseph. At the top, where true believers get down on their knees...
Abu Victor withdrew his right foot from its leather slipper and scratched his left ankle. He had not set out any plates because now, in the clear light of Friday afternoon, he wasn’t sure that eating the cake was such a good idea.
In Beirut, before the war,44...we stood tall, looking back at the way we had come: Montreal, located at the confluence of the rivers, clothed in winter. I had a sudden image of my father who, as a young man in Borneo, walked up to the town’s Jesuit monastery at the top of the hill, ... the four of them had been merely kids. Tony, rocket-shaped, was the leader. George, blinded in an accident, used a cane. Elias was a snob who spoke French at home and one day pronounced himself Le Colonel. And finally there was Joseph, who excelled at sports. From birth, they had lived in the same building, their mothers drank coffee together, and their fathers repeated the same jokes.
Decades later, the four had arrived in Canada via separate trajectories, and now they lived in different neighbourhoods of the same city; Montreal had pulled so many of their friends and neighbours across the seas. There had been a war, after all, and how could any family be expected to live beneath bombs and snipers for fifteen years? Still, it was odd, Abu Victor often thought, how many of his fellow Lebanese had left in 1990, just as the war was winding down, after having seen everything and lived through enough.
It was in 1990, in fact, that Abu Victor had glimpsed Tony crossing the street in downtown Montreal. Tony had grown to over six feet tall. He was still rocket-shaped, still wild in the eyes. Abu Victor would know him anywhere. He had shouted his friend’s name, they had hugged, cried, slapped each other’s backs, gotten deliriously drunk, talked about everything and nothing as one does. Tony had been in contact with Le Colonel, and Joseph was close to George, and so a few nights later, the four found themselves in a restaurant, twenty-five years old all of a sudden, with nothing between them except food, four bleeding steaks, and drink, three hefty pints of beer and Le Colonel’s bulbous glass of Château Margaux.
What kind of life was this,55...and when his knock at the door was answered, my father told the priest he wanted to renounce desire and devote himself to God ("If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me"), but the priest shook his head. “Go home,” he said tiredly. “Find a girl and get married. Live your life.” My father, whose own father had died a violent death, kept his Canadian immigration papers in a plastic bag; he waited ("lonely," Dai Sijie put it, "as a red-haired horse")... Joseph had wondered then. How miraculous.
The waitresses loved George; they were fascinated by his dark glasses and watchful face, by the white cane he wielded as confidently as a weapon.
Drifting in nostalgia, Joseph had mentioned the narrow crevice in their shared building where, as kids, they used to hide, one at a time, until it became too dangerous, when they grew too tall, too thick, when they risked getting stuck in the wall.
“Just think!” Tony had said. “These days, even one of my thighs wouldn’t fit.”
Le Colonel had made a joke about something else that wouldn’t fit.
Of the four, only Joseph was married and had a child. His friends had raised their glasses and christened him the Proud Father of Victor, Abu Victor.
Joseph had glanced up at a clock on the restaurant wall66...until the last possible day to leave for Canada. From the plane, he looked back at the way he had come, the town clothed in evening, the pale back of the sea. and found himself inexplicably breathing the clean, mysteriously perfumed scent of his wife’s skin. Nadia, Nadia, Nadia. Victor, Victor, Victor.
Around the patio table, Le Colonel was laughing over some joke that George had told. George had collected jokes ever since he was a kid. He and his small white cane used to wander all over the neighbourhood to beg, borrow, or steal one-liners from the old men idling forever in cafés.77And now, here in Montreal, why did it seem like everyone was packing up to go? Headed to greener pastures in the Laurentides, or more commonly, to jobs in Toronto. The boarded up storefronts on St-Laurent left us guessing, we couldn’t remember... Later, George had collected jokes in the bomb shelters. Plenty of jokes then. His grand dream had been to write his own joke book, but as Abu Victor always said, What the hell kind of dream is that?
Now the sun was three-quarters down. On the opposite balcony, university students were being obnoxious; their rowdy laughter ran roughshod down the alleyway, scattering wave after wave of birds.
Le Colonel glared at the students and said, “God in heaven, I want to poke their eyes out!” He taught at the Université de Montréal and was a specialist of the Peripatetic school, Aristotle, Strato, people like that. “In this country, when they’re serious, they whisper! But when they’re frivolous, they shout! They only want you to hear their stupidities!”
George began, “It’s just like that joke, when Abu El Abed goes into the restaurant in Bourj Hammoud and the owner says to him—”
“The cake looks okay,” said Tony.
“Wedding cakes are for decoration only.” Le Colonel’s voice was reedy and aggravating. “Not to be insensitive, Abu Victor, ya akhi, but you’ve had it in the fridge for three years.”
Abu Victor leaned back in his chair. They all did, and for a moment he felt as if he could pull each and every one of them on a string, that he could reel them in or push them back, that everything they did was, unbeknownst to them, compelled by some action of his. They were all trying to shelter him like leaves along a branch. If he leapt from the patio, would they follow him? But when had their faces grown so heavy, their hips rotund, their feet so flat?88...which shop or restaurant had been there before, and my love, who had arrived here in the mid-'90s, pointed out the same establishments over and over as if they might, like a crease of sunlight, disappear without warning. 350 years ago... When had they all started looking like their grandfathers? He knew his friends wanted to help him, maybe some part of them even wanted to make light of the catastrophe because, all through the war, hadn’t they made light of the catastrophes of others? To joke was heroic; it proved one’s indifference. It was these kinds of emotions—not weeping, not tearing your hair, not thoughts of suicide—that showed you had survived intact.
George tapped his cane firmly on the ground. “I think, Abu Victor, you might bring the cake to the new apartment. There’s no reason to do anything with it until you’re ready.”
“Yes, George. When will I be ready?”
“But why eat it at all, habibi?” Le Colonel asked.
The question was reasonable but Abu Victor felt a surge of irritation. He imagined sculpting a perfect likeness of a chocolate eclair and serving it to Le Colonel on a plate. That would break his precious teeth.
Tony said, “Maybe we should set it on fire. Taoists do this, don’t they? Make burnt offerings.”
That Tony should know anything about Taoists was so surprising, they could say nothing.
Finally, George spoke up. “But what is this cake made of? It might burn for seven days and seven nights."99...French colonists named this outpost Villa-Maria, City of Mary, and later Montreal, but the archaeological objects unearthed here date back to 4000 BC and to a history that precedes history. ("She asked," Dionne Brand wrote, "what had happened in the rest of the world, did anybody else die? Was anybody else heroic?")
“Why don’t you donate it to the homeless?”
Abu Victor ignored Le Colonel’s question and gazed across the alleyway. He had lived in this apartment with his wife and son for almost twenty years, while Victor was growing up. It was rent-controlled and, in consequence, nearly falling down. There were cracks in the plaster, lines emerged from the walls as if the building was writing them a message. Meanwhile, the neighbour on the second floor despised him. She complained that, when he walked, bits of plaster fell from her ceiling. “Can’t you at least take off your shoes?”
Abu Victor had told her, sadly, “No. I can’t. You want to see the eczema on my feet?” He didn’t have eczema, but his deceased grandfather had suffered from the ailment. Cracked soles, so painful there were times when poor Jidi could barely walk. “I have to keep Vaseline on my feet twenty-four hours a day. If I don’t wear these special slippers, I might slip and break my neck. Those slippers are as important to me as a white cane is to a blind man. Our relations are not perfect, but even you wouldn’t wish disaster upon me. Would you?”
The neighbour was too polite, and perhaps pitied him too much, to call him a liar to his face.
Not his wife, though. Nadia had called him a liar every day of their life together, sometimes teasingly, but lately only in despair. Was it really every day? Well. Even if he was exaggerating, didn’t he have the right? The grief inside this house would soon kill them both. He couldn’t breathe.
The wedding cake had come from, of all places, a Japanese bakery in Montreal. Yuki and Hank, wedding cake makers. It looked like four ladies’ hats of diminishing sizes resting one on top of the other. Abu Victor’s son, Victor, had chosen the cake with his fiancée, Mi-yung. It was not common to see a young Lebanese man with a young Korean woman. The two had been together for six years and had planned a small wedding with no more than sixty guests.
The cake glinted in the sun like a giant tooth. He imagined Victor in a suit with a cake knife in his hand, a smile upon his lips. Imagining his son made Abu Victor want to tear his heart out. What could he ask of his friends? Would a friend hold him underwater? What friend could help him die, save his marriage, take his life, and rip it up and begin again?
Tony swivelled his chair away from the patio table. He looked out at the alleyway and told them: One afternoon in the spring of 1987, he walked into a café in Montreal. He sat down and ordered an espresso and a baba au rhum to celebrate the end of the Lebanese civil war. He’d thought, But what if it’s all lies? What if it’s all in jest? Maybe the war is not really over. But I no longer care! Every single time they say it might be over, I’m going to buy myself something that I like.1010We earned $200 from our discarded books, and celebrated by eating the sublime croissants at Guillaume. We continued packing. He’d put on ten pounds, maybe fifteen, before he finally realized his plan was faulty. He told himself, These militia pigs are making me fat. What should I do to stay lean? I’ll have to fall in love. That’s what he did.
“You fell in love?” Le Colonel asked.
“Didn’t I look good then?”
George said, “It’s a city of beautiful women.”
“That’s why we stayed, isn’t it?”
Le Colonel said, “Speak for yourself.”
Tony didn’t say that he’d fallen in love with Nadia. Beautiful, teasing Nadia, with her long, piano-playing fingers and her scented, heavy hair. With Abu Victor’s wife, Tony had felt himself becoming another kind of man. He’d tried to steal her but he had failed. That was a long time ago, ancient history. But why had he said so much, and why now of all times? When Tony started telling the story, he’d forgotten the ending. He’d forgotten there had been an ending at all. He stared at the cake, struck silent by his own confusion.
The sobriety around the patio table was unnerving. Abu Victor brooded, turning his wineglass round and round in his hand. George could hear music crackling from another balcony. His French was only passable, but he thought the singer was shouting, Take off! Take off! Take off your shirt! George wiped his nose. His dark glasses were slipping, it was very hot. When he was a child, the neighbours used to whisper, “Poor George, with his white cane and his dark glasses, he already looks like a little old man.” He smiled. The neighbours had no idea that women were drawn to his blindness like stars to the night sky.
George slid his left hand across the table, and someone, probably Abu Victor, pushed a glass up to his fingers.
“Water, George?” It was Tony. “The evening is still so hot.”
“I’d prefer wine. You know what Abu El Abed says, ‘If you’re going to steal something, make sure it’s a camel.’” The water was lifted away. The stem of a wineglass was fitted between his fingers. “Thanks.”
One of them leaped suddenly from his chair. Abu Victor, no doubt. He never did anything slowly.
George heard steps, the screen door opening and slamming shut. Opening again. Abu Victor came back with plates and utensils. Probably forks. The sun was making a red venous pattern, like the back of a leaf, against his eyelids. It was very bright out.
The morning they unwrapped the bandages from George’s eyes, he had felt so devastated he had asked his parents for a new name. They had thought he was only joking, so he had remained George. Because he had been ten years old when the accident happened, he had experienced plenty of colours already and so colours in his mind never went away. Colours were visited upon him in streaks and textures, in tessellations that bandaged the world. Doctors, nurses, adults, and priests told him all sorts of things: how lucky he was to have survived the explosion, how fortunate he was to have the chance to experience God’s earth in a different way. God, they said, had surely been looking out for him! George observed the spidery lines breathing behind his eyelids: they made the forms of animals, the metre of languages, the stomping of colours. They were lines attached to wires that exploded but left no victims. 1975, the year the war began, he, Joseph, Tony, and Le Colonel were all ten years old. They liked to tease him, waving their hands in front of his eyes, their movements distorting the colours he saw and making a breeze against his skin. The three boys would pick up his hands and run them over the surfaces of things,1111My love, for whom this apartment and neighbourhood were home, was desolate. Our friend, John, the poet, had died the previous year, and we had a shelf full of his books, a library of Arabic literature, their thin covers sheltering them from the passage of years, countries and owners, divorce and war and children's hands. John used to come and sit on our patio... the shell of a bullet, a stolen negligee, a rock in the shape of Napoleon, a cat named Foufou. He remembered, most of all, how Joseph, Tony, and Le Colonel would run him down to the bomb shelter at the bottom of their building, all their hands on his body—holding his wrists, elbows, back, head—as they spirited him down the staircase, the racket of their feet so small against the deafening explosions. Just the sound made you feel as if you’d died.1212...his foldable white cane resting against his knee; he had lost his sight in an accident when he was young. “What do you think I should wear / to the theatre tonight?” he once wrote. “Will there be any fingerprinting and / will anyone mention / the war during the intermission?” He’d had the sensation that they were the bomb falling, rushing headlong down the stairs. Or more precisely, he was the bomb carried in the belly of their hands, about to be tossed into the shelter, to take everyone, loved ones and enemies, family and strangers, away with him. “Joseph, Joseph,” he would cry, and the other boy would shout “George,” and the sound of his own voice seemed to call a different George out of George’s chest, and this boy, too, would pull him along. To where? Not to safety. Only the next step, the next hiding place, the next onrush of feeling.1313My love wrapped the books carefully. Our new home would be tiny. John’s books would have to go to storage.
But now, as he sat beside Joseph, he did not know what to wish for his friend except numbness. The death of feeling. Joseph’s son, Victor, had always had a soft voice. The soft voice is always drowned out.
“Might as well give me some wine too,1414Friends stopped by for a drink. On the patio, they argued, smoked, and told... eh, Tony?”
Le Colonel’s voice reminded George of seagulls.
Tony said, “The wine is very sweet, habibi.”
“Eat the cake,” George said quietly, “and the wine won’t seem so sweet.”
“Abu Victor,” Le Colonel said, “is that a new sculpture?”
“New? New from three years ago.”
“How can that be? Have I not visited you in so long?”
“The last time I saw you,” Le Colonel continued, “there was also a war.”
“A different war.”
“Same fucking war,” Tony said.
Le Colonel wanted to bring up something from the past, from when they were kids. If he said the right thing, he was sure the four of them would just relax. The present was a minefield. Peace was such a tricky thing. And how could they be expected to help Abu Victor? Nothing could replace Victor, who even at twenty-two had still possessed the sweetness of a child.
Tony said, “George, old man. You want cake?”
“Yes,” Abu Victor said. “Why not?”
Abu Victor held the knife and dish in his hand. He put the dish down and, with both hands, positioned the blade on the highest tier of the cake.
“I would start from the bottom,” Tony said.
“You would, would you?”
“Shall I do it for you?” Tony asked.
“No, my friend. You’ve done enough.”
Le Colonel laughed. The laughter felt odd. Abu Victor felt as if the sky itself was staring at them and passing judgment, and that he was disappointing not only his three friends, not only Nadia, but also the sky itself.
“Who’s the oldest now?” Le Colonel asked, even though he knew.
“Tony. He’s the first to turn fifty-one.”
“I stopped getting old a long time ago, George. Are you fucking blind?”
“Your girlfriend, what’s-her-name,” George hummed. “I saw her very well. Oh La La.”
“Remember Miss Oh La La!” Le Colonel said. “The little breasts of Miss Papineau. The shapely legs of Madame Le Normand!”
“One day,” George said, “a Parisian, an American, an Iranian, and Abu El Abed met at a conference.1515...Abu El Abed jokes. I was tired and made my excuses. I lay in bed, glad that the sound of Arabic filled our home and rained down on P., reminding me of when I was young, and my parent’s Hakka and Cantonese transformed our kitchen into another country. All of... In the middle of their conversation, they—”
“No more jokes,” Abu Victor begged.
Tony knocked over his glass of wine. No more jokes. The wine spilled on George, whose body didn’t react at all. The pitch-black lenses of his glasses turned away from the cake and in the direction of the sun. His white cane, disturbed by a twitch of his knee, clattered to the floor.
Downstairs, the neighbour shouted in frustration, “Mais, non! Non!” but perhaps it wasn’t meant for them to hear.
Tony leapt up, ran inside looking for a cloth, and returned with a handful of paper towels.
“Was it red wine?” George asked.
They cleaned up and settled down again.
“Cut the cake, Abu Victor,” George said.
“Yes,” he answered. Father of Victor, Father of Victor.1616...our grandparents were born in villages; now we, wearing our grandparents' faces, will, like half the world, live and die in cities. My grandfather, orphaned, arrived to Borneo when he was a child. My parents and siblings gave up their Malaysian and Hong Kong papers when they left for Canada. My love’s... “Thank you. I will.”
The cake melted slowly in Abu Victor’s mouth. It surprised him, the sugar tunnelling through his body. Maybe a person didn’t have to know all the things he or she did. Abu Victor felt so sick of knowing, he thought he might be drowning in knowing. And today, more bombs had fallen on those poor, accursed people. What could anyone do? There was no justice.1717...country, Lebanon—in geographical terms only twice the size of the Island of Montreal—has 4 million people, plus 1.5 million Syrian refugees, and half a million stateless Palestinians who arrived and couldn’t leave. They remember...
He was tired of knowing. The fighting in Lebanon had ended slowly. That had been Abu Victor’s experience. Actually, for twenty years, one didn’t know if it was really all right to turn around and go home to Beirut. One didn’t know if peace was just an interregnum, a little pause-café, a short afternoon nap before killing, which had its own relentless schedule, resumed. Also you didn’t know when you would open a door1818...that street, those shops and restaurants, a place culled from the map ("For we went, changing our countries more than our shoes"). My love once joked, It’s not only the rich who have many homes. and have the past rush toward you with its hysterical weeping and outstretched arms. In truth, he preferred the past to the present. Mi-yung had told Victor of a Korean saying, “To thrive in calamity but perish in soft living.” Mi-yung’s parents had lived through the Korean War, they’d been children back then. “You’ll feel at home with them,” Victor had predicted, and he had been right.
Abu Victor understood Beirut, but he believed there was something ill and volatile about Montreal. Was it the air, the water, the hard ice of winter?
What made people go mad, even momentarily?
Why did the sun seem so frivolous here?
His son had grown up in Canada. If, in different circumstances, Victor had ever needed someone to help him, he could easily have come to his father, to Tony, to Le Colonel, even to George! (A blind man could kill a person by accident. This had been their joke when they were kids: George could accidentally shoot any number of people.) Survival was that easy. As teenagers, they thought everything they touched turned, if not to gold, to life itself. The act of living was nothing more than taking matters into one’s own hands.
Mi-yung, who should have been his daughter-in-law, didn’t need this cake. A year ago she had met someone else. Despite their attachment to her, Abu Victor and Nadia had decided not to attend Mi-yung’s wedding. It would have felt too much like giving away their own daughter. Mi-yung’s parents were fortunate; they had three children, but Abu Victor and Nadia had only their one beloved, their son, Victor.
Now Abu Victor remembered an earlier incident. He started to tell Tony, Le Colonel, and George about it. Abu Victor and his son had been in the car. Victor had just gotten his licence, so he would have been seventeen years old. They had been driving through the intersection of Saint-Laurent and Mont-Royal1919Bit by bit, the apartment emptied. Once the books were gone, the walls were unfamiliar. I went to the used bookstore, S.W. Welch, which displayed... when a cyclist ran the light, swerving so close that Victor came within inches of, accidentally, running him down. The cyclist was an idiot. Completely oblivious to the fact that he’d cheated death. In shock, Victor had rolled down the window. He’d shouted, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you see I nearly killed you?”
The cyclist laughed. In French, he said, “Where are you from, you piece of shit?”
Abu Victor had felt as if the entire street, the whole city, maybe even the entire country,2020...our former books in the window. I stood on the sidewalk drinking coffee, pretending I was on my patio and the pages were my relations. had turned to stare at them. Silence covered him like a cloth.
Victor broke the silence. “I’m from here,” the boy had shouted. He’d shouted in French, then English, then Arabic. “From here! From here, you asshole. And I’m not going anywhere! You hear me, you racist shit? We’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”
Were they from here? Abu Victor asked his friends now. The car had driven on and Victor had repeated only two words:That bastard, that bastard. Victor had always been soft-spoken, his temper non-existent, and Abu Victor had been inordinately proud of him for standing his ground. He’d said it aloud: “Victor, you really showed that ghabi! Did you see the look on his face? I’m proud of you.”
Around the patio table, no one answered him. Their discomfort and sadness felt like smoke inside his lungs.
Abu Victor drank his wine and took another bite of cake.
His son’s name, Victor, belonged to this place—to Montreal, to Paris, to Beirut—and the name had also belonged to Joseph’s own father. All was belonging. But had a name ever been enough to bind a person to a piece of land?2121My love walked through the empty apartment shaking his head. “That fucker,” he said, and laughed. We’re going soon, I thought. We’re leaving. We're free. Our friend, John, once wrote... “People don’t belong to other people,” Nadia had told him only last week. “Mi-yung doesn’t belong to Victor, our son doesn’t belong to you, you don’t belong to me. And none of us, none of us, belong here. None of us.”
“If not here,” he had said, wanting to take her in his arms but knowing deep in his heart she did not want him, “then where?”
“I don’t know, Joseph.” Her tears had scalded him. “Why don’t we have any answers?”
Now he said to the air, to Tony, Le Colonel, and George, “If you bleed into the ground, as Victor did, don’t you have the right to call the land your own?”
“Abu Victor,” George said. “It was an accident.”
“What is accident, George, and what is catastrophe?”
Le Colonel said, “I agree with you, Abu Victor. But maybe all of it, everything, is accident. Not the will of God, just the unending motion and weight of accident.”
Abu Victor shook his head. “Is that all this is?”
“But you misunderstand. That is not a small thing."2222"In the summer, the war travels from tree to tree, and we hide for a while under a branch afraid that love will be taken away. Ever since we’ve known love there has been a war and we’ve had no idea what would rise from the ground or fall from the sky."
Victor had been on his way to work downtown. It had been very early in the morning. A stranger had been causing a disturbance, he was having some kind of breakdown, waving a knife around. The police said the man was making too much noise, he was ripping up bags. Victor, approaching from the opposite direction, heard the confrontation. Had he entered the alleyway on purpose? He spoke three languages, maybe he thought he could speak any language. He’d graduated in engineering and was working toward his professional licence; he knew about crumbling cities where things fall down, brought low by shoddy construction, or bombs, or hate. Like his father, Victor always woke early, by 5 a.m. at the latest. Victor had opened his eyes in the bed of the apartment he shared with Mi-yung. He was very precise with time, it was like he had a clock ticking away inside him. He bicycled to work at exactly 6:30 a.m. He and his bicycle had turned onto the scene. Had his presence caused someone to flinch? The police, when they shot dead the man with the knife, accidentally shot Victor as well. A bullet had ricocheted off a wall and struck Victor in the chest. The police tried to help him. No one would tell Abu Victor if his son had said anything as he lay in the alleyway. In the ambulance, Victor had still been breathing. But neither he nor Nadia, nor Mi-yung, had reached the hospital in time. At the moment his son died, Abu Victor had been awake as usual. He had been sitting in this very chair, looking up at the changing light over the rooftops. Afterwards, the police gave Abu Victor his son’s clothes, his bicycle helmet, and his bicycle. The knife brandished by the homeless man turned out to be only a butter knife. The shooting was in the news, there was an outcry, the police apologized, the ensuing inquest called it a tragedy, and then it was over. Everything was gone. All this had happened three years ago, at 6:40 a.m.
How can it be, Abu Victor wondered, that I am still the father of someone? Would it not be better if I became nameless? Abu. Father of.2323Which part of us is for living, which for the public record, and which for art? I've been thinking about my mother again, and of a friend whose young brother committed suicide. The greatest heartache defies language. “Non finito,” a Renaissance sculptural technique for leaving work unfinished, an unresolved thought, the rough edges that desire something other than completion, the underdrawing of a painting left visible, a no man’s land between the private and the public work, a story told “imperfetta,” reminding us that all the materials at our disposal—paint, paper, ink, memory, kilobytes, hands, and selves—are subject to decay.
He cut the cake cleanly, from the bottom tier, and served a second helping to Le Colonel, who said, “It’s surprisingly soft inside.”
“I broke all the bones already.”
Le Colonel laughed but looked nauseated.
So it’s true, Abu Victor thought. A joke is a knife. A joke can spill blood.
Tony accepted the piece that was given to him. All through the apartment, Tony saw reminders of Nadia. Photographs of Nadia and Victor, Victor and Nadia. Nadia and Mi-yung, Victor and Mi-yung. Nadia had wrapped the wedding cake in plastic wrap and put it in the freezer. Why had she done that? What would she do when she came home and found it gone? He had not seen Nadia in such a long time. She was a good and upright person. Abu Victor might have lost his son, but he still had a home and someone who loved him. Shouldn’t that count for something?
“Yuki and Hank made this cake,” Abu Victor said drunkenly. “We should send them a letter of gratitude. We should tell them their cake has lasting quality.”
George’s cane had the lightness of a cat’s paw against his knee. He thought the cake was ten storeys high and wreathed with pink roses. He had seen a cake like this when he was a boy, at a wedding in Harissa, a village in the mountains, in the region where his mother was born.
Le Colonel: “Remember that night in Cyprus when we met the princesses ...”
“I don’t remember a fucking thing,” Tony said.
Tony again: “I’ve loved the formality of wedding cakes ever since I was a child.”
George pushed his plate across for a third helping. “Tony, what does formality taste like? Do you know the one about Abu El Abed going to a wedding in Jounieh . . .”
My son in a suit. My son in a suit of clothes. My father in a suit. Father and son, Victor and Victor. “I really don’t know either.”
Tony: “Are you drunk, Abu Victor?”
“I would pay a lot of money to be drunk.”
“Do they eat this kind of cake in Japan?” Le Colonel asked.
Abu Victor wanted to laugh and laugh. “Every single bloody day.”
The cake was surprisingly delicious. Le Colonel found himself listing the things they had once picked up from the streets. All the sweets he, Joseph, Tony, and George had eaten after trading bullet casings, cigarette packages, marbles, anything, with other bands of brothers in the neighbourhood. He remembered all the older boys who had sauntered by with beautiful girls on their arms. Ever-changing girls in ever-changing dresses and ever-changing shoes. Of course they weren’t really changing, material goods had been in short supply . . . But the streets of Beirut had once been kaleidoscopic, alive and more alive with each rotation of the hours.2424Today, we’re in Beirut, the city of my beloved. This morning, his brother’s cat leaped onto a tall chair and somehow managed to smack him in the face. My love returned to bed, confused. Outside: horns, the rush of mobylettes, flocks of birds, the murmur of women, men, leaves. The cat, who is hearing impaired, is frequently startled by us. Outside, shrines to the Virgin Mary adorn the corners (Mary, Aphrodite, Ishtar, Astarte, gazing down from their grottoes, looking back at the way we came).
The war had lasted a long time and eventually they had all left Lebanon. Le Colonel himself had been the first to go. He had fallen in love with a French girl, and he had followed her; Le Colonel had told his parents he wished to study philosophy, and they had happily paid the bills. In France, he’d fallen in love with a Lebanese man who never experienced the war. Now they had a home together in Hampstead, a wealthy Montreal enclave that had its own public security department. But he couldn’t recall the order of the others’ departures. Was it Abu Victor in 1984, then George in ’86? Had Tony really stayed all the way to 1990? He couldn’t remember. It was a nothing place, Beirut. He refused to go back. Le Colonel was not that child anymore, a boy who could be satisfied with sweets, with watching the world go by. The philosopher Strato observed that water pouring from a spout separates into individual droplets, Strato imagined that everything in this universe was produced by weight and motion. Old Strato thought he could free God himself, make it so that God was no longer responsible for creation: all that was required for life to continue was weight, was motion.2525What can any human being put into such a cake? Freed from the idea of God, Strato believed, we would finally be free of fear.
Le Colonel had been introduced to the ideas of Strato when he fled Beirut for Paris, but from the beginning he had carried a seed of doubt. Le Colonel did not fear God. God barely made any claims these days, it was people who thought they were responsible for all of creation. Society was bloated with ego. When he thought of men, Le Colonel felt an almost incapacitating terror. In his entire lifetime, there had been not a single minute in which war did not exist. Peace, therefore, was the grand illusion. And those who lived in peace lived in a dream about to vanish. Le Colonel had been awake in Beirut, but he had fallen asleep in Paris. He slept still. He slept and chose sleep rather than the terrible sadness of waking.
Softly, George was telling a joke about Abu El Abed taking a class on the environment.2626("But teacher, aren't you underestimating the absorbency of sea sponges?") George was a master of comic timing. The other three men leaned forward as one to hear the punchline. The joke was absolutely filthy. Le Colonel could barely breathe, he was laughing so hard. His nose ran and tears dripped from his eyes.
Afterwards, Tony said, “I think I’ll leave Montreal. When this cake is finished, I’m going to go home and pack my bags.” He had not been back to Beirut since 1987. He ate a pink rose made of sugar and found that it was still frozen in the middle.
George took a fourth helping. In their mother tongue, blindness is used as an expletive. Al’ama. But they didn’t know. His friends couldn’t see all these colours and all this sun. All they could see was this cake. He said, “Good for you, Tony. Send us a letter now and then.”
Victor was riding his bicycle down Avenue du Parc, and the world was quiet. He was trying not to think about the wedding. Instead he watched as a pale, liquid light slid over the towers of downtown Montreal. His bicycle was whistling down the hill. He passed the city’s centrepiece, Mont-Royal, a hillock, really, compared with the mountains of Lebanon. There was an immense statue, a woman balanced on the ball of one foot, arms uplifted, asking for justice.2727("Eternal Aphrodite," Sappho wrote, "leave me not in sorrow and bitter anguish of soul to suffer, but come to me ...")
Victor did not know what to ask for. He was worried about Mi-yung, who was worried about her grandmother in Seoul. They would go to Korea, they would take care of things. That’s what he most wished for, to be able to take care of things for her. To set their world, just their small part of this city, in order.2828On August 1st, P. took the house keys into his own hands. He looked at us smugly as if he had won. But nothing stays in place. Today, Beirut’s afternoon light bends against the brise-soleils and falls against the page. The first written reference to this city dates back 3500 years. The Chinese say that we eat bitterness and, in so doing, we endure. My love and I celebrated by savouring cake.
One day, he would engineer a transparent building. Imagine that. He flew down the hill, savouring the breeze against his skin, and imagined himself as an object falling down into the world.
George dropped his fork.
“What is it?” Abu Victor said.
George’s voice was almost lost behind the laughing clamour of the young students on the opposite balcony. “Nothing,” he said. “I was thinking about the staircase of our old building in Beirut. I thought I saw something that wasn’t there.” George fell silent. But he saw it still, a weight and a motion, falling past them. A bird on an electric pole was chirping in an even ticking, like a clock measuring time, and then it stopped.
Abu Victor heard the front door opening. It could be Nadia coming home. She would come out onto the patio. She would see Tony. She would see him. Why did you do this, Joseph? Don’t you understand? I saved it. I saved it.
He wanted to ask her, What can any human being put into such a cake? If this is all that God, the universe, nature, Buddha, I-don’t-know-who, gives us, what is there for us to add? Let me take it into my own hands or else how can I continue? Tell me, Nadia, please, how I can remove your sorrow. Your sorrow, our sorrow, is killing us.
Tell me, my love, my life. I beg you. Where is justice? Tell me.
Incredulous, Abu Victor saw George, unaided, taking a fifth slice of cake.