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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Breaking Knees

Zakaria Tamer

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To purchase Breaking Knees

Title: Breaking Knees
Author: Zakaria Tamer
Genre: Stories
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 170 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Breaking Knees - US
Breaking Knees - UK
Breaking Knees - Canada
Breaking Knees - India
  • Arabic title: تكسير ركب
  • Modern Arabic Short Stories from Syria
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Ibrahim Muhawi

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Our Assessment:

B : short, fairly well turned

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Saudi Gazette . 10/11/2008 Susannah Tarbush

  From the Reviews:
  • "The stories in Breaking Knees take the reader into a world at once entertaining and appalling: a society of seduction, corruption, rumors, illicit liaisons, false paternity, polygamy and jinns, ruled over by dictators and a state apparatus of torturers, interrogators and crooked officials. (...) Breaking Knees is a satisfying collection of stories told with humor, poetry and a good dash of fantasy. At the same time the stories are revealing of social and political conditions in some sectors of the Arab world." - Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Breaking Knees is not the first collection of stories by Zakaria Tamer to be translated into English, but it is the first translated and presented in its entirety -- i.e. it is a cohesive collection, presented just as it was in the original Arabic. It consists of 63 stories, many of them only a page or two in length.
       The stories are untitled, only numbered. Despite their brevity, they often cover a great deal of material: rather than just a single incident or episode, they are like sketches of a life or conditions.
       Sex -- often illicit or inappropriate -- plays a large role in many of these stories. Never explicit, Tamer nevertheless conveys it well; the almost decorous circumlocutions are especially effective in conveying the ambivalent feelings of some of the women towards the act. And there are also some humorous takes on sex, as when one woman brags that her husband: "lay on top of her as soon as he had finished his evening prayer, and would not leave her until the muezzin had called the dawn prayer", leading all the neighborhood women to complain to their husbands, who are ashamed that they're not up to quite such feats.
       There is an almost casual violence to this society, too, as people frequently get beaten up (including -- but certainly not only -- by the police). Politics, however, is only occasionally addressed -- most amusingly in a Rip Van Winkle-type story in which a man wakes from a coma and finds that many of the familiar trappings of his life and neighborhood have changed -- but that all the government officials who had been in office when he slipped into a coma still hold those same positions; the story concludes with the man hoping to fall back into his coma.
       Tamer's stories frequently unfold unexpectedly, with sudden shifts in direction and emphasis; he also has a nice feel for absurdity. Many of the stories are fundamentally realistic, but he'll also suddenly introduce fantastical elements -- as when a character begins conversing with his cat:

     I was full of admiration for the cultural level of my cat. "Where did you get your education ?" I asked. "Which school was it ?"
     "God save us !" The cat exclaimed, shocked. "If I'd gone to school I would've forgotten how to fly."
       An Introduction by translator Ibrahim Muhawi provides some helpful background but is also curiously selective: Tamer has apparently lived in exile since 1981, but this is not mentioned anywhere in the introduction or author-description (and hence neither is how this affects what he can write and/or publish in the Arabic world -- something that is surely of interest to readers). Muhawi does note Tamer's "musical prose" and the difficulties of translating such writing, which "is poetic in its economy"; certainly, these stories and how they are presented have a different feel than contemporary American or British short fiction.
       Tamer's stories are satirical, and with a fairly hard edge. The humor can feel ugly, because these situations are often not happy ones, striking so close to reality. All the stories are quite effective -- few stand out, but there are no major lapses, either -- but sixty-three similarly relentless ones adds up to quite a lot. The more varied collection found in The Hedgehog probably makes for a better introduction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 September 2009

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Breaking Knees: Reviews: Other books by Zakaria Tamer under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature

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About the Author:

       Syrian author Zakaria Tamer (زكريا تامر) was born in 1931. He has lived in London since 1981.

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