Catalog of a Private Life by Najwa Bin Shatwan is a small but mighty collection of stories dissecting the evils of war. In spite of such a weighty theme, it is funny and refreshing to read.

The collection was originally published by Dar Atha in 2018. Dedalus books, a British publisher known for experimental writing, published the English edition, translated by Sawad Hussain, last year. The collection of eight stories is petit, comes up to less than 100 pages. Shatwan is an accomplished author. She has published three critically acclaimed novels, placed her stories in culture-defining anthologies, and received many literary honors. In 2017, she became the first Libyan to be shortlisted for the International Award for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).

The first story is titled “The Burglar in White Socks.” It tells the story of a burglar who falls from the roof of a house full of women and turns their world upside down. The titular story “Catalogue of a Private Life” is about a general focusing on preparing for war rather than actually fighting a war. In the story “Conventions for the Protection of Pestles,” a father identifies missiles as they wheeze past his family waiting in line for diesel. Then he thinks about how much such a missile would mean to a copper merchant who found its remains after explosions. In the collection, war is a part of daily life in ways that shape the sights, sounds, fantasies, and livelihood of the characters. War also infiltrates the dreams of characters in the most bizarre way, as in “The Young Cow Crossed the Field.”  In the story, a man dreams of a cow that begins to speak Arabic after eating newspaper and books. He is haunted by visions of this cow in his dreams. First the cow can speak in Arabic. Then the cow appears in his dreams in the form of a fighter jet and then a missile.

Shatwan writes beautifully. Her style is pared down to bare essentials. No flowery excess. I found it fascinating that the spareness of the language actually made the stories otherworldly and captivating. The stories read like parables with extra layers of surrealist strangeness and political critique. This quality makes the stories alluring, brings a touch of magic that pulls the reader into a world where animals have a mind of their own and objects have intentions.

Underneath this stylistic ingenuity is a powerful critique of how war normalizes violence and desensitizes a culture to destruction. Following Muammar Gaddafi’s ascension to power, Libya was thrown into a series of civic unrest and communities subjected to everyday aggression from the state. Shatwan asks the reader to think about what this kind of prolonged exposure to violence can do to a society. Characters attempt to lead life, business-as-usual, in the midst of war or in spite of being haunted by memories of war and end up exhibiting signs of trauma.

For some of you reading this review, Catalogue of a Private Life might be your first encounter with Libyan writing. Hopefully, Shatwan’s work inspires you to dig deeper into Libyan literature.



Buy Catalogue of a Private Life: Amazon