The world is confusing. And nowhere is more confusing than Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Palestine, now and in the ‘80s.
Linden MacIntyre’s book, The Only Cafe, acknowledges the confusion and the complexities. Cyril, the main character in what is basically present day Toronto, is working as an intern at a media company. He has no clue what’s going on in the world, in his family, or with his father, who has been missing and presumed dead for five years. I like how MacIntyre wrote a character who doesn’t understand what’s happening in an extremely confusing part of the world. I like the acknowledgement that is difficult to understand. At least one other character admits it’s hard to figure the complex situation in Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, even though they grew up listening to their parents arguing about it.
I don’t feel so bad about my confusion, about the layers of complexities, about who is backing who, who did what, why they did etc. I don’t feel so bad that I had to Google dates and times and places to give myself context and even the small amount I cobbled together didn’t help, really.
I’m glad other people are confused. When you take classes in college the teachers act like it’s not a big deal and that if you don’t understand every nuance you’re stupid. As if it is that easy.
In The Only Cafe, Cyril’s father (who grew up in Lebanon) leaves instructions for a public roast instead of a funeral, which leads Cyril to Ari, a mysterious man who was friends with this father. His father’s instructions eventually lead Cyril to the place where he died and into a dangerous situation that has been roiling under the surface of his father’s life for decades. I don’t want to give anything away, because as much as this is a novel about life and family, it is a also a mystery and a thriller, albeit a gentle one where the stakes have passed for most of the characters. The ending is still tense and unexpected.
The Only Cafe also considers the impact of secrets. After translating some of Cyril’s fathers journals, Cyril’s editor tells him: “Sometimes a secret is an act of kindness.” The secrets didn’t hurt Cyril until they started to be revealed. He would have been better off not knowing about his father’s past. Safer, certainly.
After I finished reading The Only Cafe, my brain tried to sort it out while dreaming. In my dream, I wandered around a city that looked like Vancouver but wasn’t, struggling to find rental housing. I had to contact a shadowy organization, only found via rumours from equally shadowy people. The unspoken understanding was that the housing market was unfair, complicated and that it would be easy to get screwed. My search lead me to a woman who apparently knew how to find a place to live. She was busy though, moving into her own place. I spoke to her, and she wouldn’t help me. Even in my dream I knew it was all somehow about The Only Cafe, but I don’t know what it was trying to tell me. I’m still confused.