Living on Borrowed Time
Old age is territory that has been generally neglected by fiction writers. Novels are written on childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and on to the mid-life crisis, but few authors venture much further along the lifespan. British authors who have bucked the trend and written acclaimed novels with elderly main characters include Vita Sackville-West (whose 1931 novel “All Passion Spent” has an 88-year-old heroine), Kingsley Amis with “The Old Devils” (1986) and Muriel Spark with “Memento Mori” (1959). The Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1985 novel “Love in the Time of Cholera” tells of a love affair, rooted in their youth, between an elderly man and woman.
More recently the American author Phillip Roth, now 75, has written several novels with ageing heroes, including “The Dying Animal”, “Everyman” and “Exit Ghost”. The latest novel by British writer David Lodge (73) is entitled “Deaf Sentence” in reference to the loss of hearing of its main character, a retired professor.
Now a novel focusing on old age, by Lebanese journalist and fiction writer Hassan Daoud, has been published in English translation under the title “Borrowed Time”. Daoud’s novel first appeared in Arabic in 1990 as “Ayyam Zaa’idah” (literally, “Added Days”). The translation into English by Michael K Scott is published by Telegram of London, Beirut and San Francisco. Remarkably, while novelists writing on old age tend to be in their twilight years, Daoud was only in his 30s when he wrote this novel about a character six decades his senior.
The novel’s first-person narrator is a widower aged around 94 (the narrator explains at length the doubts and theories about his precise age) living in a village in South Lebanon at close quarters with his extended family. He is far from being a contented old man coasting serenely towards his inevitable end in the bosom of his family. Rather, he puts one in mind of lines from the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas: “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
The narrator of “Borrowed Time” frequently rages – whether inwardly in his thoughts, or outwardly in shouting at his family and in other acts of rebellion. Daoud takes the reader into the consciousness of the old man convincingly and without sentimentality or pity. In a circling and dipping narrative he captures the way the mind works in old age – the ruminations, the endless replaying of remembered incidents, the vivid dreams related to death, and a memory that increasingly plays tricks.
Hassan Daoud is a prominent figure in Lebanese culture. He is the editor of Nawafez, the cultural supplement of the newspaper Al-Mustaqbal, and previously worked for As-Safir and Al-Hayat newspapers. He has published five novels and two volumes of short stories. Other novels of his to have appeared in English translation include “The House of Mathilde” (published in London by Granta Books) and “The Year of the Revolutionary New Bread-making Machine” (Telegram, 1997).
“Borrowed Time” reflects the enduring importance of home, family and place of origin in Lebanese society. The narrator lives in a house he built years earlier, up against his father’s house. The family has left his dead father’s house empty after two of the tree trunks that held up its roof rotted away. One of the narrator’s sons has built a house over the abandoned house, and from its balcony the son’s wife looks down on the old man.
The old man lives alone in his house, with family members all around who deliver him cooked food, help him tidy up and ask after his health, but with whom he has little real contact. The old man shows an often wicked sense of humor in his observations on his relatives. There are endless comings and goings of family members, friends and neighbors in the homes above the narrator’s house. They sit on balconies drinking coffee and gossiping; the old man often thinks he is the subject of their talk. Daoud movingly reveals the gaps in communication between the old man and his children and grandchildren, and the terrible loneliness that can be present even within a large extended family. The old man hints at the love he has for one of his sons, but he never expresses it to him in words.
The old man had had a bakery business in Beirut, and like so many Lebanese families his family divides its time between Beirut and the home village. Gradually his children have taken over his home in Beirut, his bakery and his land around the village, and his horizons have shrunk to leave him virtually housebound. According to him his family is waiting for him to die, but “I say to my daughter-in-law to infuriate her that Azraa’eel the Angel of Death cannot touch me.”
The narrator is candid about his failings as a husband and brother-in law. He recalls how he would be kind to his long-suffering wife Hajja Khadija as long as they were out in company, but how he constantly shouted at her at home. Even before his wife died he briefly tried to court a widow not much older than 40, taking her “a bag filled with soaps and perfumes and stockings like the women in Beirut wear.” He was unkind to his wife’s handicapped sister Fatima, and was repulsed by her large tumor, with its “fine blue veins like those on a cow’s stomach”, between her neck and her chest.
The old man’s rebellions take various forms. Although he built an indoor bathroom at his wife’s prompting, he has taken to urinating outside on the concrete below the mastaba (the stone platform on which the house is centered), little caring that he is poorly concealed from any onlooker. One source of annoyance to members of the family is his habit of playing loud Qur’anic recitation on the radio at daybreak outside his house so as to wake them up. “This is all that is left of my influence on the household. I turn up the radio full blast to test my authority; every time I turn it up I wait for someone to yell at me”.
After one of his grandsons yells at him that he has lived out his own lifetime and that of others and that he has to die, the old man feigns a stroke. Later on he becomes confused and ill and his grandsons torment him. When he asks for a doctor to be brought from the town of Nabatiyah they try to fool him into believing that one of them is the doctor.
In the harrowing final chapter, streaked with desolate humor, one of his sons brings two vulgar women married to the same man to clean up the filthy bed in which the now incontinent old man is lying. They indulge in lewd discussion of the old man as they cursorily clean him up, treating him as a distasteful object.
Despite his physical incapacities and difficult temperament, the old man acquires a kind of nobility over the course of the novel. “Borrowed Time” is a subtle, beautifully written book with a quiet brilliance. Its meandering narrative requires patience, but is ultimately rewarding.
Saudi Gazette, Feb 2 2009