Grave danger

Matt Beynon Rees's latest detective novel may offer the perfect peril-free tour of Gaza.

a grave in Gaza 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
a grave in Gaza 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A Grave in Gaza By Matt Beynon Rees Soho Press 368 pages; $24 For readers who hunger for a peril-free tour of Gaza, Matt Beynon Rees's latest detective novel may offer the perfect solution. A sequel to his previous novel, A Grave in Gaza continues the adventures (or in this case, misadventures) of Omar Yussef, a balding, elderly Palestinian teacher who - in special circumstances - dons the time-honored literary role of detective. Rees portrays his protagonist as a supremely ordinary man, one who most values the time spent with his grandchildren or eating the meals that his wife lovingly prepares. What makes him extraordinary, then, is his unwillingness to walk away from a scenario that seems to assure his death as the outcome. When faced with the imprisonment of an innocent teacher and the kidnapping of his United Nations colleague, Yussef sets out to solve a murder and save the people whose lives are threatened. The result is a grim 330-page bloodbath in which the corpses pile up. In his novels, Oxford-educated Rees draws upon 10 years of experience as a journalist in the region. While the novels are billed as detective stories, Grave feels much more like a political thriller. The mystery involves the upper echelons of government, and the air continually resounds with the harsh staccato of Kalashnikovs and explosions. Underground plots figure prominently in the tale, but they are only the roots of a deep-seated political unrest. It's an irony that a region that is the focus of some of the most extensive media coverage in the world is also deeply unfamiliar to most people. As if to address this incongruity, life in Gaza is depicted down to its finest and most sordid details. Not only does the reader get an inside view of Palestinian culture, with its coffee boys and potentially dangerous funerals, but also graphic descriptions of frequent and unsettling acts of violence. In the course of his investigation, Yussef encounters a variety of Palestinians, from the very wealthy and corrupt, to the very poor who get caught in the crossfire, to the terrorists who declare their readiness to be martyred. This kaleidoscope of characters illustrates that even in a small area like Gaza, it is possible for many points of view to exist simultaneously. In this respect, the author's roots as a journalist are most apparent: Most of the plot consists of Yussef collecting names and conducting interviews. That is not to say, however, that there is no action: Between riots, gun battles, assassinations and car bombs, even the most bloodthirsty appetite should be satisfied. Two of the most prominent characters are foreigners, UN representatives from Scotland and Sweden. One function of these characters is to present a view of how outsiders view Gaza. At one point in the book - a quiet moment when the action has slowed, just before another storm of violence - the Scottish official, James Cree, confesses to having roots in Gaza that date back to World War I. This, together with other discussions of Gaza's history, attempts to place the region in a historical context. The European characters serve to justify the many explanations about Palestinian culture that flood the novel. One example is when a Palestinian character explains to the mystified Europeans that guns are traditionally fired during both weddings and funerals, concluding with, "Gunfire is the music of the Palestinians." The novel opens with an explicit description of filthy latrines, and that opening sets the tone for the rest of the narrative. Nearly all the details about Gaza range from dreary to outright hideous. There is no softness in this account; even the weather is a perpetual dust storm, violently churning the desert sands as if as a metaphor for the brutality of the plot. Beaches are inundated with trash and oil drums. The only oasis for the characters, ironically, is a graveyard where the greenery is miraculously intact. The politics of the novel are deliberately muted: Yussef's sympathies are ultimately with the Palestinians, but he is a moderate, harboring a righteous anger toward the corruption in his own government. He has no reaction to the posters of suicide bombers hanging right outside the university, nor to eating in the pizza store of a man whose son was a suicide bomber, suggesting that these bombings don't disturb him much. It's therefore impossible to gauge where the author's political sympathies lie from this novel alone, and that's as it should be. At the very least, Rees strives to portray Gaza as objectively as possible while still underscoring the humanity of his characters and the complexity of the culture.