If there were a formula for war novels, it might include a healthy dose of Ernest Hemingway and a splash of Tim O'Brien mixed with a subtle tincture of Leo Tolstoy. In writing, however, following a formula rarely produces anything exceptional. Author Salar Abdoh (Tehran at Twilight) defies all formulaic constructions, despite the very real influence of these seminal writers in Out of Mesopotamia. The result is an unblinking look at the realities of war and the impossibility of ever leaving war behind.
Abdoh, drawing on his experiences as an embedded journalist in Iraq and Syria, positions protagonist Saleh as a witness to the constant machinery of active combat--the damage, loss and necessarily loose camaraderie of those living (and dying) in it. Saleh's role as witness is somewhat comic, as his sight is often blurred, distorted or completely lost in one eye. Even his role as a writer is tenuous; he is able neither to embrace his peacetime job as art critic and television writer nor to tell the truth of what he has seen in battle: "I do not know how to translate any of this. I do not know in how many worlds a person can live simultaneously before they lose themselves completely. There is not language enough to explain all of this." Though Saleh may doubt the sufficiency of language, Out of Mesopotamia--a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice--provides a wrenching examination of war and of the way humanity can't ever manage to be done with violent conflict. --Sara Beth West, freelance reviewer and librarian