Thursday, February 9, 2012

NIKO -- by Dimitri Nasrallah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This award-winning novel opens very powerfully in Lebanon during the civil war years when Niko is a small boy and his mother is expecting a second child. The first two chapters are beautifully written in their drama and shock effect, and raise expectations for the rest of the book that seem almost impossible to meet. The tension and sense of tragedy are nearly unbearable as father and son travel the Greek islands seen through the eyes of these traumatized refugees desperately trying to rebuild their lives after unimaginable loss. Once Niko arrives in Canada, out of harm's way but also severely shaken by the loss of his father who has remained behind in Athens, he is adopted by immigrant relatives and forced to begin his life over in a strange country devoid of warmth, where survival is guaranteed but life has little meaning. With that transition to a safer, greyer world devoid of family values, the story of Niko loses much of its energy and focus as it becomes a tale of adaptation to a strange new environment. You could argue that this is inevitable, given that Montreal and Beirut are as far apart as tragedy and irony -- but I think some of the responsibility for the relative weakness of the final chapters (and particularly the climax, when Niko robs the till at Zeller's to go searching for his father, now a shipwrecked sailor with amnesia who has ended up in Chile after being found at sea, the sole survivor of a vessel that sank off the coast of Brazil...) belongs to the author, for failing to deepen and develop the character of Niko. In fact, from the shipwreck on, I stopped believing in a story that had seemed overwhelmingly real, and incredibly riveting up to that point. The geographic distance between father and son also becomes a distancing from reality, or maybe a literary nod to Gabriel Garcia Marquez rather than an authentic exploration of the refugee experience. The magic begins to feel contrived, as Niko suffers through adolescent exile marooned on Montreal's suburban south shore with an aunt and adoptive uncle who are pursuing their own materialistic dreams as immigrants and 'new Canadians." Both Niko and his father seem detached, in different ways, from their own inner truth. Maybe this is the theme, reflecting the psychic condition of post traumatic stress -- but I couldn't help feeling the novel failed to find a path to a conclusion worthy of its astonishing and unforgettable beginning.

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