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Blue Metropolis: Dimitri Nasrallah looks beyond the Diaspora in his riveting new book Niko

In the opening pages of Niko, the novel’s titular six year-old character is trying his darndest to make sense of the world around him. There’s his downright fascination with Mama’s rapidly swelling belly, whistling lessons during his first day of class and an intermittent score of machine guns and mortar blasts best enjoyed from the window sill of his Beirut apartment. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that there’s a lot to take in.

Montreal author Dimitri Nasrallah, who won the McAuslan First Book Award for his 2005 debut novel Blackbodying, returns to Blue Metropolis this year with another sobering and sophisticated meditation on the exile experience. Characters turn their backs on a country torn apart by civil war only to find themselves living with a sense of ‘outsiderness’ and alienation in a new host country. No gory details are spared, yet amidst the unspeakable horrors of war, Nasrallah shrewdly juxtaposes seemingly innocuous details that hint at how life goes on in the face of devastation.  

Semblance of normalcy
Among the most striking imagery Nasrallah conjures up is that of a woman outside her apartment hanging clothes to dry next to a gaping hole exposing the remains of what was once a family living room. “I think that’s the psychology of war,” the young fiction writer tells me in the peaceful quarters of NDG’s Shäika Café. “Beyond the initial warfare that destroys everything, and after a few years of conflict like that, there is a natural yearning for ordinariness amongst the population. People will naturally gravitate towards finding some semblance of normalcy within those lives.”

Autobiographical threads, though not necessarily intended, can be found in Niko, as Nasrallah was born in Lebanon during the civil war and moved to Athens, Kuwait and Dubai with his folks prior to settling in Canada. In the book, the young boy is unexpectedly thrust into a new life in Montreal with relatives, and Niko’s new parental unit doesn’t mince words when referring to their ‘safe though unfulfilling lives’. The author’s razor-sharp reflections on Canadian multiculturalism’s much-heralded tenets permeate the story.

“My priority was always to tell an individual story, and I suppose I stick most closely to the story that I know, which is this sense that yes, everything does even out here, there are opportunities for people to build lives of their own and create individual enclaves for themselves, but what’s within that is something that’s resolutely unpolitical and uncultural; the ordinariness of it all.”

Escapist Top 40 fantasies
As a means to escape the dreary North American reality that’s been forced upon him, one of the first things Niko latches onto is a little cassette deck from which he plays prerecorded editions of…Casey Kasem’s Weekly Top 40! The parallels with the author – a techno gonzo who also moonlights as Exclaim!’s electronic/dance music editor and an invaluable player on the MUTEK team – are just too conspicuous here to misread.

“Yeah, that’s autobiographical,” Nasrallah recognizes with a smirk. “When I first moved to Canada, it was kind of a tough period for me because I was going through puberty. So I’d spend hours just shifting from station to station and these countdown shows were the thing that really drew me in. It all seemed like a utopian form of culture where there was never any sense of consequence attached to it; you never had to worry. I would say that for most of my teenage years, pop culture was kind of the great hideaway for me.”

Niko book launch
April 28 at 5 p.m.
Holiday Inn Select | 99, Viger West, Room Narcisse AB