Dec/Jan 2012

Winter of Discontent

Two novelists capture the despair that inspired the Arab Spring

Thomas Meaney


With swift dispatch, fiction about the Arab Spring is starting to appear. Earlier this year in France, Tahar Ben Jelloun published Par le feu (By fire), a novella about Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vegetable vendor whose self-immolation last February ignited the series of popular protests across the Middle East and the Maghreb. In the last scene of the book, a film producer tries to buy the “life rights” to Bouazizi’s story from his family. “Don’t talk to anybody, don’t give any interviews to journalists,” he tells them. “I’ll help you. I’ll tell the story of Mohamed—everyone in the whole world has to know what happened.”

Par le feu has the tidy feel of a book made to order for the Arab Spring, but it captures a problem about the literature of revolution: The first writers who arrive on the scene tend to be political opportunists hoping to capitalize on the ferment and market their heroic version of events. Soon enough, we will get the nonfiction equivalents of John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World (1919) and Timothy Garton Ash’s The Magic Lantern (1990), which bore witness to their revolutions in all their pristine enthusiasm. But before those accounts arrive—and before the fully mature fiction of the Arab Spring is published—the novels most worth reading were written before the revolution, and in many cases from a distance. Among the finest contemporary writers from North Africa who have helped chronicle this period of revolutionary hibernation, two of the most acute have been exiles: Albert Cossery, an Egyptian writer long based in Paris, and Hisham Matar, a Libyan novelist living in London. If their books—three of which are being published this fall in the US—can’t convey the revolution as a physical experience, they can take us deep into the world of those behind it: the workers, students, and government defectors of all classes who combined to form the resistance.

Credit Albert Cossery with this: Despite the fact that he lived in exile in Saint-Germain-des-Prés for more than six decades, despite his extraordinary gift for wasting time in cafés—despite his death three years ago—his novels are the first ones you want to read about the Arab Spring. Reading Cossery, you feel your lungs fill up again with all the noxious air of the last sixty years that Egypt is just now trying to expel. In his books, you meet not the youth of Tahrir Square, but their fathers and grandfathers—the lost generations of the 1950s and ’60s who, in Cossery’s novels, make a game out of lowering their expectations and a rueful art out of their despair. We’re in Nasser- and Sadat-era Cairo—a thriving hive of corrupt bureaucrats, roguish scholars, romantic prostitutes, calculating madams, and poets who “believed that the city’s spectacular deterioration had been expressly created to hone their critical faculties.” Cossery’s Cairo is darkly lit, garishly painted, and full of the sort of existential swagger that feels only more genuine for being slightly juvenile.

Proud Beggars, first published in 1955 and now being reissued by New York Review Books, comes with Cossery’s usual cast of fictional types. There’s Gohar, an ex-professor, now turned listless flaneur, who funds his hashish addiction writing letters for illiterate prostitutes at a local brothel (“With a nice ass, who needs to know how to write?” as one of them observes). There’s his friend El Kordi, who has decided to fall in love with one of the diseased prostitutes out of a sense of social justice (“It was the reading of Western literature that had deranged his mind so”). And then there’s Yeghen, the poet of the group (“It must be said in his favor that Yeghen didn’t consider himself a genius—a rare characteristic among poets. He found that genius lacked gaiety!”). These young men would be at home in an early Fellini or Godard film (more than they would be in a novel by Camus, with whom Cossery is often tiresomely compared) except for one difference: They risk more than a slap on the wrist by the local gendarme for their antics. Imprisonment, torture, and death await them at every turn.

Gohar’s philosophy is that poverty is not tragic, and that prodigious indifference can transform even the worst humiliation into something manageable. Peddling this doctrine takes a heavy toll, and in an attempt to make his point, Gohar kills a prostitute in the brothel. It makes no sense, and critics have complained about the cheap riff on Camus. But one doesn’t read Cossery for the perspicuity he brings to moral questions; one reads him, rather, for the mental claustrophobia he can evoke with such seeming effortlessness on the page. (Cossery famously wrote at a rate of one sentence per week, so this effortlessness was likely carefully honed.)

The Colors of Infamy, Cossery’s last novel, was published in 1999, though it feels like it was written the week after Proud Beggars. There’s something admirably obsessive about Cossery’s refusal to expand his range one inch in the course of his career—as there is with his compulsion to revisit the same neighborhoods (“Just as an ugly woman grows no uglier with age, the El Huseini district had not undergone further degradation over the years”). Again we are in Cairo, again with a gang of young men. This time, the group is led by Ossama, a stylish pickpocket who gets his fix from his confrontations with authority. (“One always learns something from rubbing shoulders with infamy!”) The final scene culminates in a showdown with a corrupt developer after the gang finds evidence implicating him in a housing disaster (the developer claims it was caused by an earthquake that selectively targeted the building). The Colors of Infamy is more compact and assured than Proud Beggars. It doesn’t indulge in as much lyricism as the earlier book, but wrenches even more startling delirium from Egypt’s long years of abjection.

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Considering that Múammar Gadhafi banished most of his literary competition to the infamous Abu Salim prison, and periodically sent his henchmen to hunt down the new local talent (he once devised a fake literary festival to attract them), it seems almost inevitable that Libya’s best living writer, Hisham Matar, should be an exile. Libyan writers who eked out a living under Gadhafi either trafficked in uncensorable symbolism or quit the country as soon as possible. Matar’s only real rival, Ibrahim al-Koni, writes for people who prefer whimsical fables to fiercely observed realism. In the Country of Old Men, Matar’s 2006 debut novel, deals directly with Gadhafi’s police state, and in the past year he has become the de facto literary ambassador of the new Libya, turning out countless interviews and articles for the Western press. His latest novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, written just before the Arab Spring, concerns a son’s search for his father, who has been disappeared by the Egyptian secret police. (This actually happened to Matar’s father in 1990—in his case, the police operated on behalf of Gadhafi.) Matar skillfully turns his father’s absence into a haunting presence that gnaws at the security of the other characters, and becomes the source of a life-determining obsession for the son.

The novel opens at a resort in Alexandria, where a twelve-year-old boy named Nuri and his widowed father fasten eyes on a pretty young girl. “It is true; I did see Mona first,” says the narrator, a grown-up Nuri looking back years later, though still locked in the competition over the woman who will complicate the bond between them. One gets the impression that Nuri has just found a new playmate on the beach, but a few pages later, his father, a mysterious Egyptian diplomat, has married the girl. The more we learn about Mona, the less suited she seems for either of them—a grasping materialistic young woman with an apparent inability to carry any emotion all the way through. But when the father is kidnapped, the competition between father and son is displaced by fear and guilt. In the years that follow, Nuri tends to his absence in part by becoming the man his father told him to be. The obsession sets in when he decides to track down a woman who may know the mysterious circumstances of his father’s disappearance.

Matar’s prose is tightly controlled, and only rarely does he allow it to stray beyond essential description. A man’s zipper “widened like the open mouth of a small fish”; peering through the fogged shower curtain, Nuri sees Mona’s “triangle of black hair blurred and moving like one of those blots that appear after looking directly into the sun”; Nuri’s father’s absence “is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.” Sometimes Matar’s English sounds like it’s been translated from some language with deeper access to emotions: “Longing was a stone in my mouth”; “my heart thundered as if it were a thing trapped.” For the most part, though, Nuri’s voice is so restrained that he seems to be deliberately reining in his impressions before they grow into anything too substantial. One of the effects of Matar’s narrative strategy is that it shows the way that a life lived under authoritarian repression—even one as seemingly far removed as Nuri’s—can internalize the repression and appear to be stopped in motion.

Anatomy of a Disappearance feels very far from the Libyan uprisings until one considers that thousands of Libyan citizens have experienced a similar version of the self-editing pressure Nuri feels. Not knowing the status of those missing in Gadhafi’s and Mubarak’s prisons, many families have been mired in a state of inconclusiveness from which they are only now just starting to emerge. One suspects that Matar’s next novel will be even further removed from his childhood and, if it explores the current Libyan uprising at all, that it will proceed with his characteristically wary optimism. For Matar is the sort of exile who, after witnessing his own sense of self shrink to a fine point, finds his sharpest view not at the front line but from a meditative distance.

Great novels of revolution don’t have to be ambivalent about the events under their watch—think of Doctor Zhivago, A Sentimental Education, and Man’s Fate—but they need to give us a sense of what the events felt like at their exhilarating heights and in the vexed aftermath. Cossery and Matar have both contributed to the moral history of their generations, and their novels form part of the continuum of resistance. But they’re necessarily limited to dealing with thwarted emotions rather than fulfilled ones. It’s too early to tell what the future novelists of the Arab awakening will make of their world-historical material—it would be foolish to speculate. The story of their revolution is far from over, and the most decisive trial is in the years ahead. For only after the fervor of the revolutionaries ebbs will it be time for the novelists to pick up the thread.

Thomas Meaney, a doctoral student in history at Columbia, last wrote in these pages on V. S. Naipaul.

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