Dimitri Nasrallah’s The Bleeds is a doubly hybrid novel: both a literary-slash-international-thriller and a bricolage of blog entries, newspaper clippings, and traditional first-person narration recounting the story of family dictatorship.
The setting, which appears only in the running header of the novel’s inserted newspaper articles until it is eventually revealed as a republic “along the Middle Eastern-Transcaucasian fault line” near the end of the narrative, is a reality-rooted invention. Nasrallah, a Beirut-born, Montreal-based writer, and author of the CBC Canada Reads-nominated novel Niko, is clear about the fictionality of the nation in The Bleeds. He certainly doesn’t mean to have the reader make guesses as to which real country his nation could be, as he renders ongoing strife between the region’s two fictional ethnic groups in careful detail. The country here parallels many of the nations of the Arab Spring, though there is a distinct lack of crossover between religion and politics in The Bleeds, both in the personal philosophies of father-and-son dictators and in the language of the revolution around them.
The novel opens with an election that is proving impossible to rig: a contest intended to grant a second term to President Vadim Bleed, the 37-year-old son of Mustafa Bleed and grandson of Blanco Bleed, the figure who liberated his nation from British rule half a century ago only to replace it with this family dictatorship. Mustafa passed on the country to his son when he thought the time was right and he could guide the transition. To him, this meant simply continuing his rule as his son matured into the kind of man who could effectively maintain power on his own. The appearance of a principled political rival from the country’s oppressed ethnic group, along with rising unrest from citizens and discontentment expressed in the Nation, the formerly obedient and state-run newspaper, signal the possible end of the Bleeds to everyone except a father and son who are unwilling to consider ceding power.
The dynamic between the Bleeds, who spend the entire present storyline of the novel apart, at first appears to be of the Prince Hal and Henry IV variety: the louche youngster who refuses to take on his duties in the shadow of the strong, responsible father. Vadim is off to a high-fashion photoshoot as the election results come in, seemingly gallivanting carefree around Europe, to the frustration of his father, who is left desperately trying to cook the vote tallies and deciding which journalists to send to the uranium mining camps. Nasrallah quickly complicates the dynamic by revealing that Vadim has his own ideas of governance: “I can try all I want to shake loose my father’s grip on the government, but no election will change that. To truly effect change, I need to tackle the people who line his pockets, and those of his police, his military, and his intelligence services.” Any notion that Vadim has the freedom of his people in mind in challenging his father’s power quickly fades; his objective here is to replace his father’s iron grip on the nation with his own, to be corrupt in a savvier, 21st-century way.
Seeing a literary novel marketed as a “fresh take on the contemporary thriller,” as The Bleeds is presented in its jacket copy, tends to chill readers who read both literary novels and thrillers. Often, this coded language is a warning that a novelist who is entirely unfamiliar with contemporary thrillers has arrived to show what a “proper writer” can do with the high-tension situations normally associated with genre fiction, and the result is usually a momentum-free, ponderous piece of writing. This isn’t the case in The Bleeds: Nasrallah has clearly taken the plot mechanics and suspense seriously, constructing realistic intrigue on both the international and interpersonal levels of the book. The touches of action, including an attempt to attack Mustafa Bleed’s motorcade with an explosive-wired stray dog, are also creative and effectively deployed.
Despite the strength of the plotting and the believable intricacy of the offstage machinations against each Bleed, the novel falters slightly by giving us such openly expressive narrators in the two dictators. Both Mustafa and Vadim Bleed, whose alternating first-person chapters tell the story—interspersed with newspaper articles and blog entries from journalists determined to add their own version of truth—seem determined to tell all, for reasons that become clearer as we learn each character’s ultimate fate. Before this reveal, however, readers are presented with the intimate reflections of not one, but two introspective tyrants in The Bleeds, and self-examination and tyranny don’t tend to go hand-in-hand. The clear-eyed, if never self-incriminating manner in which Bleed senior and Bleed junior iterate their motivations and recount their histories (Mustafa: “I should just let this entire region spiral off without me, put on the blinders. Of course I can’t. This is Bleed country, my father’s invention, my life’s work, Vadim’s responsibility, our family’s legacy.”) make elements of the plot seem improbable. One would think the particular exigencies of dictatorship call not only for self-righteousness, but also a lack of retrospective second-guessing.
Nasrallah’s construction of the book does show how multifaceted revolutions can be, and how the ideal of an information-and-citizenry-propelled deposition of corrupt leadership is often a total illusion. In dialogue-driven scenes that sometimes nest slightly too much exposition at the expense of realistic talk, Nasrallah renders precisely the backstage strategizing of “the General,” Mustafa Bleed’s long-time ally, and the international players who care about the region’s stability more than its freedom. While there are journalists and leaders who emerge from The Bleeds looking as though they do care about the ideal of liberation, most of the multiple voices in Nasrallah’s text deliver a damning vision of freedom as merely a useful concept to discuss loudly while quietly seizing absolute power.