Book Review - The Silence and the Roar

Free expression is the first casualty under any dictatorship. The work of dissident writers and intellectuals is banned and, when this doesn't have the desired effect, they are imprisoned, tortured or simply "disappear". Nihad Sirees's own experiences in Syria inform his profound and topical 2004 novella, which has now been translated into English by Max Weiss.

The Silence and the Roar follows a day in the life of Fathi Sheen, a once popular writer condemned to obscurity for being "unpatriotic". As he makes his way across town to visit his mother and girlfriend, an unnamed leader is celebrating his 20th anniversary in power, and people pour onto the streets to express their devotion. Fathi encounters characters who, like him, are struggling to make sense of the marches, military music and speeches – all the "noise of the regime". An unlikely hero, he intervenes to stop government thugs beating a student, and attempts to rescue a woman from being trampled.

Although effectively silenced, Fathi is still respected. A government employee is desperate to describe the torture he endured after a photocopier malfunction caused an ink blot to deface the Leader's portraits. A doctor, struggling to treat the numerous casualties from the marches, begs Fathi to "name" the loss of respect for human life – he settles on Surrealism. Weaving together their stories with Fathi's own experiences, Sirees creates a chilling portrait of a people whose lives are dominated by fear.

Denied the opportunity to write, Fathi's "two weapons of survival" are sex and laughter. However, on reporting to party headquarters, he finds his ability to resist the regime severely tested. He is offered a stark choice: to join the "noise" by writing state propaganda or face "the silence of prison", or worse, "the grave".

Today, Sirees lives in self-imposed exile in Egypt. The unnamed dictator in his Orwellian tale could be any number of those in power today, but the parallels with his homeland are obvious. In an afterword to this timely translation, Sirees refers with disbelief to "the roar of artillery, tanks and fighter jets that have already opened fire on Syrian cities".

Nihad Sirees is at Southbank Centre, London, as part of Syria Speaks, on 29 January (0844 875 0073)

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday.