Tessa Lunney reviews “The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War” by Sumia Sukkar
by Sumia Sukkar
Reviewed by TESSA LUNNEY
The main character’s name looks grey, which mean I won’t like him. Gustave Aschenbach is a very dark name; he must be bad. I don’t want to finish the book in case it upsets me. Thinking about it forms hexagons in my mind with bees roaming around the shape, stinging. He is certainly a bad character then. Just the thought of reading on scares me. (p13)
These were my feelings on reading this book. Not because I was scared, but because I was moved. The naïve voice of the main character Adam, his sensual rendering of pain in colour, the misery of the war in Syria – perhaps I have read too many war novels, perhaps I have read too much news, perhaps it was the end of a cold, dark, and difficult winter, but sometimes I wanted it to stop. Adam’s clear voice is too direct, his emotional use of colour, his literal reaction to cruelty and its effects, involved me in a way that my PhD years reading trauma theory could never do.
Adam has Asperger’s Syndrome, a fact made clear by the cover blurbs and the essay that ends the book. What we see is a teenage boy who is sensitive, intelligent, easily overwhelmed, and literal-minded. Written in first person, we travel with Adam through the beginning of the current war in Syria. As the war breaks out around him and every routine is broken, as people disappear and others appears in their place, as they die and break down, Adam’s coping mechanisms are tested as much as those around him.
‘Why do you always paint war?’
‘Because it’s filled with endless painting possibilities, and the range of colours is so wide.’ (p17)
His main coping strategy, and the one that is most moving in the book, is that he gives his emotions colour. His favourite family member, his sister Yasmine, is a ruby red colour when she smiles, but changes colour as she becomes angry, defeated, scared and sad. As people smile or shout colour pours from their mouths, they shimmer and glow and ooze. Adam’s language is simple but his use of colour is sophisticated, making a scene that might have been cliché or repetitive vibrant and visceral. He paints his life, then he paints the war, when he has no food left he eats his paints to become the good colours, when he needs to paint again he paints in blood that he collects from the corpses at his doorstep.
He told me that blood is the substitute of paint. How can blood replace paint? But now with the blood in front of me, I have a part of me that is pushing me to take some blood and paint. So I do. (p152)
Each sentence is simple and direct, without irony or sarcasm. He eats his paints because he must eat. He paints in blood because he must paint. His childlike thought patterns combine with common impulses of desire or fear to devastating effect.
The progress of the plot is not what ‘happens’ in the book. These events are awful and the family suffers and suffers. But if you have read the news in the last three years, you can piece together what they do – their story must be one of thousands. What makes this book worth reading is how Adam understands the war, how he copes with its chaos, how he relates his understanding to us through his sensitivity to smell, taste, touch, sound, and of course, colour. He can say the obvious without it appearing out of place – This war is unfair, there are no uniforms or clues (p89). His reactions are physical, he wants to vomit or shake, he is fascinated and repelled by the smell of blood. His naïve intelligence comes straight to the point.
In some ways, his autism protects him. Life was already overwhelming, so he has an arsenal of coping strategies; he understands all things literally, so he does not drown in emotional subtext; he has no need or impulse to fight, as his brothers do. In other ways, of course, he falls apart just as his family does, rocking and spitting and finding himself unable to breathe. His frame of reference is constantly shifting – what frightened him in the beginning of the book is nothing by the end. His reaction to the absurdity of wartime life is particularly vivid. After a bomb blast, he finds an ear on the ground and pockets it.
It’s an ear! It’s an ear! Oh my God! Does it belong to the man with his brain on the ground? I want to walk back to check if he has his ear but I am scared of feeling sick again. I clench my heart and grab the ear again. It feels just as disgusting as the first time but I hold my breath and wipe the blood on my trousers. It looks beautiful. I didn’t know an ear could be this beautiful. I put it in my pocket and walk on. (p267)
He says what we might think but never say – the odd beauty of a disembodied ear, or not wanting to view a corpse simply because it’s frightening. Then he does what we might imagine but never do – he begins to talk to the ear, when he is lonely, whenever his family is too sick, injured, or preoccupied to talk to him. Who doesn’t want to bend an ear in times of trouble? But for Adam, his ear is literal. This literality also shows the reactions of those around him to be absurd. His father and cousin refuse what is happening and retreat into fantasy, they believe the dead are still alive and call for them. Adam’s confusion means the madness of their actions remains startling.
The only wrong note, I found, was when the voice switched to his sister Yasmine. Adam’s voice had a lightness that could be funny and sweet even while the events around him were horrific. Yasmine has none of this interest, and the plot of her chapter is unrelentingly dark. Her part of the story is important, but it is Adam who can carry us through these events. Yasmine’s resilience is rendered heroic through his eyes, but her own voice does not have his sensual playfulness.
But Yasmine has only two chapters. The rest is Adam’s rollicking voice as his family tries to hide, then desperately flees Aleppo for Damascus. Sukkar is British writer of Syrian and Algerian ancestry and her own family’s story informed the action. Read this book but be warned – you’ll need your comforters beside you.
…I lie down opposite Ali and take the ear out. It is now clean, I think the blood rubbed off in my pocket. There is still dry blood where the ear was cut off but it isn’t a lot. I pull it up to my mouth and start whispering about what I dream of doing in Damascus. (p270)
TESSA LUNNEY has a Doctorate of Creative Arts on silence in Australian war fiction. In 2014 she was the recipient of an Australia Council ArtStart grant. She has had her poetry, short fiction, and reviews published in Southerly, Cordite, Mascara, and Contrapasso, among others, as well as Best Australian Poems 2014. She lives in Sydney. www.tessalunney.com