Winner of the 2021 International Prize for Arabic Fiction—known as the "Arabic Booker Prize"— this novel explores themes of loneliness, homelessness, and mental illness.
After losing his job and refuge, Ibrahim al-Warraq, a bookseller, decides to live with the homeless people in his city and assuming the identities of the heroes of the novels he has read.
Set between 1947 and 2019, this novel is based on several notebooks of stories about people facing different hardships, such as losing their homes or not knowing who their families are. Their interwoven destinies reveal the value of the house, as a symbol of one’s homeland, as opposed to the surrounding ruination. The central character is Ibrahim the bookseller, a cultured man, and voracious reader of novels who takes on the identity of the protagonists in novels which appeal to him. He becomes a professional thief who robs banks and the very wealthy in order to help the abject poor and impose his own form of justice like Robin Hood. But due to his isolation, loneliness, and maltreatment by a cruel world, he suffers mental illness and descends into full schizophrenia. He attempts suicide, before meeting a mysterious woman who will change his life.
As events unfold, Barjas opens up many surprises for his reader, illustrating through his flawed characters the ruined state and complete emptiness of the world. In intensely poetic language, he throws light on a totally schizophrenic reality in his country, and brilliantly uses all the tools of emotional stress and engagement and of psychological exploration of human behavior that narration necessitates.
Jalal Barjas is an award-winning Jordanian poet and novelist, born in 1970. He is the author of two poetry collections, short stories, travel literature, and four novels. His novel Guillotine of the Dreamer (2013) won the Jordanian Rifqa Doudin Prize for Narrative Creativity in 2014, and Snakes of Hell won the 2015 Katara Prize for the Arabic Novel. His third novel Women of the Five Senses was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2019.
Paul G. Starkey has translated works by Adania Shibli, Mansoura Ez Eldin, Youssef Rakha, Edwar al-Kharrat, Mahmoud Shukair, Hammour Ziada and others. He was Winner of the 2015 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for his translation of The Book of the Sultan's Seal by Youssef Rakha.
The winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2021 and newly translated into English in December, Jordanian author and poet Jalal Barjas’s “The Bookseller’s Notebooks” tells the tale of a man named Ibrahim whose life follows the meandering path of his own conjured delusions. Translated from Arabic into English by Paul G. Starkey, Ibrahim moves across Amman, Jordan, with an overwhelming sense of abandonment and disappointment — he also suffers from schizophrenia. As he looks at the world through the lens of multiple personalities and characters in books he has read, he goes on a crime spree throughout the city. Bookseller Ibrahim is a man who has lost his family, his job, and his purpose in life. He had only his father’s book kiosk left, but that too is demolished when King Hussein Street is expanded. Drowning in all-consuming loneliness, the voices inside Ibrahim’s head become louder and more urgent. He is pushed into decisions that drive him to the brink of his sanity and morality. Facing homelessness, mental illness, and the tragic stories of people around him, Ibrahim morphs himself into the heroes and criminals that he has read about in his books. The descent into madness is slow and Ibrahim attempts to stop it at every turn, but with tragedy piling upon tragedy, and the woeful characters he meets, Ibrahim taps into his ability to change his entire personality to match characters in his books. With the voices inside him telling him to protect justice and fight for the greater good, Ibrahim commits crimes disguised as Quasimodo from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and Said Mahran from “The Thief and the Dogs,” among others. Barjas’s evocative tale uses generational trauma, society’s marginalized individuals, and injustice in a tacit acknowledgement of a global social system that leaves too many behind. Through Ibrahim, Barjas highlights the half-lives of people who want to live full lives but cannot because of circumstances beyond their control. While Ibrahim lives in his past and hides in his books and past trauma, he reconciles overwhelming loss by moving forward and coping in whatever way he can.
— —Manal Shakir
”Barjas’s evocative tale uses generational trauma, society’s marginalized individuals, and injustice in a tacit acknowledgement of a global social system that leaves too many behind. Through Ibrahim, Barjas highlights the half-lives of people who want to live full lives but cannot because of circumstances
— —Arab News
“One of my all-time favorite books … The Bookseller’s Notebooks … is a vastly underrated, subtle, and beautifully poetic novel set in the city of Amman between 1947 and 2019. In it, we follow Ibrahim, a bookseller and avid reader, who loses his book kiosk and finds himself living on the street … Barjas’s exceptional novel uses generational trauma, society’s marginalized individuals, and everyday injustices to acknowledge a global social system that leaves too many of our most vulnerable behind … I am honestly stunned by how overlooked this innovative Arabic novel is.”
— —Benicia Magazine