Political allegories have always been provocative for their ability to reveal hidden meanings in historical events. But in today’s increasingly polarized political climate, where leaders in democratic countries are adopting techniques reminiscent of authoritarian regimes, satirical allegories have become even more fascinating – perhaps because what once was considered outlandish no longer is, says Dimitri Nasrallah, author of the new thriller The Bleeds.
Nasrallah, a Lebanese-born novelist and professor of creative writing at Concordia University, makes this observation in reference to the deeply cathartic finale of his third book, which focuses on an epic battle for freedom, dignity, and social justice in Mahbad, a fictitious country situated between Asia and the Middle East. The book follows the fight between the Bleed regime, which has ruled with an iron fist for more than 50 years, and the pro-democracy opposition movement. “There’s a great interest in autocracies out there now that we’re seeing a reflection of them in our quarter,” Nasrallah says. “So we’re looking at them in a new way.”
Published by Esplanade Books, an imprint of Montreal’s Véhicule Press (where Nasrallah is an editor), The Bleeds is a stark contrast to the author’s last novel, Niko, about a young boy born into a Lebanese civil war who spends the next decade in exile. The Bleeds flips the narrative’s perspective from the victim to those at the very top of the power structure. The story alternates between the contrasting first-person voices of diehard autocrat and strongman Mustafa Bleed and his politically apathetic, car-racing son Vadim as they struggle to maintain power over Mahbad. But against the book’s political backdrop is a poignant subplot: the estranged relationship between the two men.
Nasrallah says his inspiration for the setting and plot derives from key political events that took place in the post-9/11 era: Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution, when thousands of people occupied Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square to protest the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri; the controversial 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran; the Arab Spring in 2011; and the widely contested 2008 re-election of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
“There were echoes of this power structure that I’d been paying attention to that went beyond the Middle East into Central and South America,” Nasrallah says. “And they all came from autocracy, natural resources, and foreign intervention. They had little to do with the people involved.”
Nasrallah says he lived with the characters during the seven years it took to develop The Bleeds. “I didn’t want to connect them to the personalities that inspired them from real life; I didn’t want that parallel to come from any particular country,” he says. “So I borrowed subtly from different autocrats across history to bring it all together. I wanted it to be compelling and not a political diatribe.”
Personal experiences and a diverse background also helped Nasrallah build authentic characters. Born in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war, Nasrallah was aboard one of the few boats that departed Beirut for Cyprus in 1982 during the Israeli invasion. His family settled for seven years in Greece before relocating to Dubai and, finally, Canada. But it was in Athens where Nasrallah developed a love for the written word. “My parents, who didn’t speak English at the time, wanted to encourage me to learn and read on my own,” he says. “So my mom started buying me books in English. Children’s novels were among the first signs of independence I was given.”
Out of this early exposure to storytelling grew Nasrallah’s own affinity for writing – not just fiction, but journalism as well – which is reflected in one intriguing feature of The Bleeds: fictional newspaper articles and blogs from prominent voices in the opposition movement. Near the end of the book, a news report typically written by Nada Ferber – one of the sole journalists within Mahbad speaking truth to power – is replaced with a story written by officials at the Ministry of Interior. If there is a takeaway from The Bleeds, Nasrallah hopes it will be, perhaps, “the way our attention to online media not only expands stories but also contorts them or how they can be contorted.”
“We talk about fake news as a phenomenon here,” says Nasrallah. “But in various countries of the Middle East and others, fake news is a tradition of sorts. Governments and their news organizations know that it’s there and accept it. The question is whether we’re heading in that direction here.”
Nasrallah invites readers to imagine themselves embedded in power structures – not for the purpose of humanizing dictators, but as a means of jarring us out of our own polarized ideologies. “In our larger culture, we have a collective tendency to shut ourselves off from different ideas. This novel is a place where that notion is challenged.”