The novel is told from the perspective of an ordinary man, a schoolteacher of Arabic for whom even daily errands become life-threatening tasks. He experiences the wide-scale destruction wrought upon the monumental Syrian metropolis as it became the stage for a vicious struggle between warring powers.
Not much happens in Faysal Khartash’s Roundabout of Death — although in another sense, everything does ... Here we see the pattern of the novel, which is kaleidoscopic: personal and collective, serendipitous and fatalistic, marked by a bitter irony that can’t help flirting with despair. Again and again — often within the span of a paragraph — he shifts the focus from first to third person, present tense to past. The effect is of a floating point of view that narrows and widens, both deeply rendered and impossible to pin down ... What Khartash is tracking is the precariousness of memory — and identity. For Jumaa, who spends much of his time wandering Aleppo to check on his aging mother or gather food for his family, it’s a matter of obsessively recalling what is missing, the fiber of the city that has been destroyed. For others, the reckoning is more desperate.
A heartwrenching and shocking work of historical fiction, Faysal Khartash’s Roundabout of Death focuses on the human cost of Syria’s civil war ... The book’s short chapters read like self-contained stories about Jumaa, his family, intellectual friends who pass time in cafés, and notable people in Aleppo and Raqqa, like the shabbiha militiamen who sport Russian firearms as they loom in town squares and the corners of shops, and Miss Beauties, a woman who wanders the city, and who is raped and used by intellectuals and shabbiha alike ... Khartash’s idiomatic expressions and unusual sentence constructions preserve the culture and nuances of the source language, making the text and, by proxy, the realities that so many people face, accessible ... Precise language elucidates the book’s themes.
Without context, the drift in Roundabout of Death floats the reader along for one hundred fifty pages among devastated people from one devastated café to another in a devastated city in 2012, until the protagonist makes an exploratory trip into ISIS-controlled territory and returns. Weighing on his mind are threats to his family and how he can possibly mitigate if not actually escape them ... Khartash refrains from drawing conclusions: Roundabout of Death is all description, a narrative of process. The translation carries this level tone. There is a flatness, a prosaic plod — witness the punctuation in the sentences quoted above — which may or may not reflect the Arabic language of the original.