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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review of THE ONLY CAFÉ by Linden MacIntyre (New Release)

3.5 Stars 
Pierre Cormier had been a Phalangist militiaman during the Lebanese Civil War before arriving in Canada as a refugee.  Twenty-five years later at The Only Café in Toronto, Pierre met Ari, a mysterious man who had worked in intelligence for the Israeli Defense Forces and was, Pierre believed, in Lebanon during the civil war and involved in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre.  Then, after a major scandal involving the mining corporation for which he worked as a lawyer, Pierre disappeared, presumably dying because of a propane tank explosion aboard his boat. 

Five years later, Pierre is finally declared dead.  His son Cyril, an intern at a national newsroom, is conducting research for a documentary on domestic terrorism but also ends up looking into his father’s secretive past and his death.  He tracks down Ari to find out what he knows about Pierre and his disappearance.

In the first part of the book, the author deliberately obfuscates.  This evasiveness and the narrative’s different timelines (Pierre’s Lebanese past; Pierre’s final weeks; Cyril’s present) leave the reader feeling confused.  MacIntyre seems to want the reader to feel how Cyril feels since he knows little about his father and even less about events in Lebanon during his father’s life there.  The reader gains clarity as Cyril does. 

I knew little about the Lebanese Civil War and so did some research especially into the Karantina, Damour, and Sabra and Shatila massacres.  Because of my lack of knowledge, I was often confused.  A historical timeline with some brief explanatory notes would have been really helpful.  (i.e. Karantina was a predominantly Palestinian Muslim slum district in mostly Christian east Beirut controlled by forces of the Palestine Liberation Organization; in 1976, Karantina was overrun by militias of the right-wing and mostly Christian Lebanese Front, specifically the Kataeb Party (Phalangists), resulting in the deaths of approximately 1,500 people, mostly Muslims.  The Damour massacre was a reprisal for the Karantina massacre.  Damour, a Maronite Christian town, was attacked by Palestine Liberation Organisation units. Part of its population died in battle or in the massacre that followed, and the remainder were forced to flee.  The Sabra and Shatila massacre was the killing of civilians, mostly Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites, by a militia close to the Kataeb Party, carried out virtually under the eyes of their Israeli allies.) 

Sometimes I felt rather overwhelmed by trying to keep the politics straight.  Occasionally, it is also difficult to determine who is speaking because there are long stretches of dialogue with no indication of the speaker.  There are also events that take focus away from the main storyline.  For instance, what is the purpose of including Cyril’s on again/off again romantic relationship? 

A more significant issue is the portrayal of Cyril.  He is an intern who knows little about domestic terrorism and the radicalization of youth, yet he is chosen to be part of a team working on a documentary on the topic.  He “became quickly lost as the discussion shifted to Syria and its potential to cause havoc in Lebanon,” but he’s told, “’I hear you’ve made a strong impression’”? 

A major theme is that the past is never dead:  “The past is never dead as long as there is memory.  Memory is the afterlife, both hell and heaven.”  Cyril is told that “’there is no distinction between what’s historical and what’s contemporary.’”  Events in the novel certainly bear this out.  Pierre’s fate, for example, is a direct result of events in the past and Cyril’s life has certainly been impacted by the past his father could not escape or totally forget.  On a broader scale, current events often have their nascence in long past events.       
There is a great deal in this novel; in fact, sometimes, it seems that there is too much.  It is a book I should probably re-read because I think there is much I missed.  There is mystery and suspense, but not a conclusive ending.  Considering the book’s theme,  such an ending is appropriate.  I recommend the book but with the suggestion that the reader first read a bit about the Lebanese Civil War. 

Note:  I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.