Damascus, like X 20, is a constraint-based novel. True to OuLiPian optimism, the constraint generates the text.
In Damascus, every noun in the novel (with twelve exceptions) must come from the Times newspaper (London) of 1 November 1993. There are many excellent reasons for this.
It makes the book, by definition, a novel of its times. In Damascus there can be no noun, or basic linguistic building-block, which was not current and authentic to the day and time the novel describes.
True to experience, Hazel Burns and Spencer Kelly have to take life as they find it, meaning in this case the restricted possibilities offered by the nouns in one specific newspaper. All they can then do (all any of us can do) is construct a life by re-arranging the arbitrary ingredients we encounter.
The events that background their lives, at every age, are always taken from the one source newspaper. This also allows an exploration of how memories can be affected by the day on which we remember them. I also like this constraint because it seems democratic, and somehow universal. Anyone can take the same idea, even the same newspaper, but come up with a completely different story.
As for the exact date, 1 November 1993, this was the day on which the Maastricht treaty on European Union came into effect. From this date, all Britons officially became citizens of Europe.
The events described in the newspaper of 1 November are actually what happened the day before. I therefore had the idea that a book sourced entirely from these events could somehow qualify as the last British novel.
Finally, it’s worth saying that true to Perec’s vision of the OuLiPo, the originating constraints should, as far as possible, remain concealed. The novel should therefore read in an entirely conventional way.
‘Damascus is utterly, optimistically charming.’
Los Angeles Times
‘A deft and charming novel … we credit Beard’s characters with their wisdom, and feel at the novel’s end that some strange mystery has been enacted for us.’
New York Times Book Review
‘A life-affirming, hope-giving profundity.’
‘A book with a real difference, which dramatically poses, and answers, the question ‘How much can a life change in an instant?’
‘Damascus is an extraordinary and wonderful novel from one of the most exciting new writers in Britain.’
‘Mr Beard’s wackiness has a shrewd precision that makes it infectious’
New York Times
‘Magical realism meets the Maastricht Treaty: an unlikely scenario, but with ease and ingenuity this young British novelist builds from it a charming fiction.’