Building 46, from Darf Publishers, is the first book in Massoud Hayoun‘s The Ghorba Ghost Story Series. However, the ghosts in these books aren’t exactly real, they are metaphorical and exist more in the minds and souls of their protagonists than as spirits of the dead,
Sam Saadoun is a deeply closeted Arab Jew university student who decides to study for a year in Beijing. The year is 2008 and the capital city of China is trying to polish itself up for the Olympics. Given both his confusion over his sexual identity, and his background, Sam has always felt like an outsider. Being in a city where he is so obviously a foreigner only makes those feelings of estrangement from his surroundings stronger.
This is his second foray in China as he had previously spent a month in Beijing studying. Thinking he had made a connection with somebody, and desperate for any sort of connection, he applied to come back for a year. However, the connection was only random and upon his return to China he finds himself even more alone abroad than he was at home.
Perhaps that’s how he becomes drawn into the mystery of Building 46. There are two student residences side by side on the University campus, Building 45 and Building 46. While the former is for foreign students with money and connections, Building 46 is mainly for those from poorer countries and who have come from outlying areas of China.
Although Sam lives in the more elite building, Building 46 holds an attraction for him. Then one day he stumbles upon the mystery of the ping pong room in the basement. Sealed off from the building by barricades and no lights the basement area gives off an aura of mystery. He even thinks he hears whispers rising up from the area – ghostly voices from the past.
Sam slowly makes connections with others, a couple of people he had met on his first stay in China and two others who are as much outsiders as he is. One is another American student the other is a Chinese Muslim student. Each of these four, plus a couple of others he meets, nudge him in the direction of investigating the mystery of what happened in the ping pong room.
Hayoun’s novel does more than just create a ghost story or a mystery. Building 46 is an investigation into the ghosts of our own lives that continually haunt us. Sam and his two new friends carry with them the baggage of who they are and where they came from. The mystery of the ping pong room is a chance to explore something beyond themselves – something that allows them to escape from their own personal reality.
While Sam is chasing down the various rumours associated with the possibility of there actually being the ghost of someone who may or may not have died in the ping pong room, he’s also creating himself. He finds out more about who he is and what he wants in these few months than he has over the past few years.
Hayoun has created a beautiful, and rather intimidating, view into life in Beijing and China. Obviously it’s not a complete picture, but it allows us to see the human side of what most of us consider a monolith on the other side of the world. There’s no such thing as the singular China as there is such a thing as a singular America or any country.
Like his main character the country is an ever shifting morass of characteristics looking for an identity. Building 46 is a fascinating and intimate character study of both its human character and a country few of us know anything about.