“He has come here, to the land of the forgotten, in order that he may forget, that within their story he may perhaps find his.”
So begins In the Cemetery of the Orange Trees, a tender and poignant collection of stories about Gaza and the Palestinian people, told with remarkable lyricism and infused with magic. The narrative features three interwoven threads: the American, moving through the camp with the keen eye of a journalist and the vulnerability of a man displaced; the children, recounting moments with a deeply humanizing gaze into the loss of innocence; and the animals, vocalizing the immensity of military occupation and the psychological turmoil it induces.
While some shrink back from the label of magical realism, Talarigo embraces it, drawing on the inspiration of J. M. Coetzee and Italo Calvino to balance history with fable. In “So That We Never Forget,” we meet Ghassan, a Palestinian man expecting his first child. As his wife nears delivery, two jackals order Ghassan to paint names onto wooden planks, warning that his child will be born a goat if he does not finish in time. “One by one, with hands weighted by a mortified heart and pounds of sadness, he paints the renamed towns and villages that have fallen in the war. But what is one to do, faced with the burden of being the father of a goat?” This emotional strain sets the stage, literally and figuratively, for the rest of the book, which never ventures far from those at once desperate to survive and refusing to be ruled.
This dichotomy is what resonates most throughout the collection. In a pair of particularly haunting stories, Talarigo perfectly captures how institutionalization
and isolation can break even the strongest spirits; “Three Cigarette Story” features a caged hawk made to turn on his brother, while “Four Cigarette Story” tells the story of a man who eats books, left in a cell with only the handbook of his captors. Together, these tales force us to confront the methods used to quell resistance in occupied territories. Though told with the slant of magical realism, both the author and reader are keenly aware that, at the core, these stories are a forebodingly honest glimpse into the lives of Palestinians today.
If the book has a flaw, it is the cacophony of voices which runs through the stories. There are a number of narrators, most of whom speak in the first person, and deciphering the shift from one narrator to the next requires perhaps more effort than is necessary. However, the book would be infinitely less successful if Talarigo had attempted to describe Gaza from a singular perspective. The roving narrator, challenging and cumbersome as it may be at times, allows for occupation and grief to exist in many forms. Further, the shifting voices and layered narrative threads give the sense that the stories themselves are having a conversation.
One of the most encouraging elements is Talarigo’s understanding that he is, in the end, telling stories which are not entirely his: “Shafiq gives him a sad wave of the hand, but cannot tell if the American returns the wave, leaving him, for the remainder of his life, wondering whether he has been seen or, perhaps, has been mistaken for a large piece of firewood or a water tank or even a talking goat.” Through self-aware moments, the author invites conversation about his representation of Gaza, its people, and the stories they hold. But he also encourages us to revisit the stories with renewed understanding, to consider the human beings lying beneath the words.
Jeff Talarigo is an American novelist teaching in the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University. Talarigo’s first novel, The Pearl Diver, won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award and was a Kiriyama Prize notable book. His second novel, The Ginseng Hunter, was included on the American Library Association’s Notable Book List of 2009. In 2013, Talarigo was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Ronnie K. Stephens recently completed an MFA in Fiction at Wilkes University. He and his wife have five children who take up all the space in his chest. His has published two poetry collections, Universe in the Key of Matryoshka (2014) and They Rewrote Themselves Legendary (2017) with Timber Mouse Publishing, and he recently completed his first novel.