Saturday, September 20, 2008

On Alaa Al Aswany's Chicago

This essay on one of my favourite contemporary writers appears today in the Scotsman.

“Praise the Lord who created beauty in a hundred ways!” declares an enraptured character in Alaa Al Aswany’s Chicago, and a similar attitude might be discerned in the writer’s attitude towards the many protagonists of his sprawling narration, whose particularities and quirks are so elaborately taxonomised as to seem like extracts from state dossiers. Equally fascinated by both sexes, alert to the tinkle of class and race in human commerce, sensitive to the consolations and the deceptions of religion, and interested above all in the question of the human body and its agitations, the narrator of an Aswany story seem to flutter above the world of his creation, hearing, noting, and sometimes whispering.

Aswany’s novel achieves something surprising, which is to turn a great city in the American midwest into a little Egypt. It begins, most unconventionally, with a short history of Chicago city, and then suddenly dives into the lives of a set of Egyptian doctoral students and emigrants resident in the city, some freshly arrived, others naturalised Americans. In Aswany’s previous novel, The Yacoubian Building, an apartment block served as a microcosm of Egyptian society; here, that crucible is Chicago, home to a set who have eagerly left home for better prospects, and yet carry that home in their hearts.

Are Quranic injuctions even more compelling in this strange and godless world, or are they in some way refuted by this carnival of liberty and licentiousness? Can freedom of speech and political allegiance make for a platform from which to question the suffocation of these rights in the motherland? Should one’s goal be the pursuit of excellence in science and learning, or is that, as one character claims, “all success outside one’s homeland is deficient”? Can the coloured and the white man meet on an equal footing, or must they observe an encounter replete with hypocrisies? These are the questions Aswany’s protagonists – a devout woman from a peasant background who continues to wear the veil, an arrogant student fixated on outperforming his colleagues, a political radical who thinks of himself as a poet, a professor who has rejected everything Egyptian and goes to baseball games on weekends “wearing his cap backward”, a Christian Copt hounded out of Egypt – ask themselves and each other.

Indeed, there are at least three levels of conversation in Aswany’s work. The simplest one is that between the characters, who feel a deep need to talk, and are roused and animated by the prospect of conversation in their mother tongue about themselves or the motherland. They debate politics and religion, banter till they find they have fallen in love, quarrel and fall silent, long for or dread the sound of another’s voice. But, on a second level, they also constantly talk to themselves, and Aswany reports these justifications, interpretations, changes of heart, and arcs of argument almost as speech. Here is the male chauvinist Tariq Haseeb vexed by the behaviour of his girlfriend:

He rang her number again and she didn't answer. When he tried one more time, she hung up. So, it was obvious. She was playing the role of the angry paramour. She wanted him to come running after her, humiliating himself. "Impossible!" he muttered [...]. Who did she think she was? He said to himself: This peasant girl wants to humiliate me? What a farce. So, she doesn’t know who Tariq Haseeb is. My dignity is more important than my life. From now on I am going to delete her from my life as if she never existed. Before I met her what did I lack? I was working, eating, sleeping, enjoying life, and living like a king. On the contrary, ever since I've met her I've been anxious and tense.
Those sos are like the hinges of Haseeb's thought, showing us the moment at which a situation begins to bristle with private meanings that seem irrefutable to the person in whose being they take root.

And lastly, there is always in Aswany's work a kind of implied conversation between the narrator and the reader, a way in which we feel as if we are being taken into confidence. A character is described at length and then the narrator stops to ask, as if describing the world of the jellyfish to a room of students, “Have we learned everything about Safwat Shakir? There are still two aspects to his life we have not touched upon....” After detailing the grinding work schedule that Tariq Haseeb observes, the narrator asks: “Does that mean Tariq Haseeb does not have any fun? Not true. He also has his little pleasures...” We feel in Chicago as if a host is asking if we are enjoying ourselves at an evening at his house.

Aswany’s storytelling is also marked by its sensuality. From the self-denying student who allows himself an hour of recreation to watch wrestling and pornography to the lapsed poet whose voice and wholeness of self is restored by sex, everywhere we see the animal self lurking beneath the trained, dressed, and tutored body-in-the-world, aching to unsheath itself. If Aswany’s women sometimes seem implausibly beautiful and voluptuous, they at least have more selfhood and agency than Salman Rushdie’s sex goddesses. His warm-blooded, sometimes voyeuristic narration is clearly a man’s work, but it has a kind of Chaucerian love of human tints and foibles that redeems its faults.

Some of the twists and reversals in Chicago, as also its circling focus, make us in agreement with the character who feels “as if he were watching an Egyptian soap opera”. Aswany’s rolling cast of characters and panoramic vision tell us that he wants to investigate the human condition on the grandest scale, and as in soap operas, he wants to make the spectator feel like part of the family. His book resides firmly within the mainstream of Egyptian fiction, but it is also an unusual and striking post-9/11 American novel.

An old post on Aswany's The Yacoubian Building is here, and a recent essay on another excellent novel set in the aftermath of 9/11, Joseph O'Neill's Neverland, here.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

On Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project

This piece appears today in the Sunday Telegraph.

Immigrant life often demands a kind of self-refashioning for which one metaphor is rebirth. Aleksandar Hemon’s melancholy new novel about immigrant life, The Lazarus Project, takes up this theme of rebirth on several levels. The narrator, Vladimir Brik, is, like Hemon, a Bosnian now domiciled in America. He has an American wife, and an American self draped over his old Bosnian self. He writes a column about immigrant life for a Chicago newspaper, and wants to write a book.

Brik is roused by the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a teenaged Jewish Ukrainian immigrant who was shot dead by the police chief of Chicago in 1908 and posthumously charged with anarchist plotting. Lazarus fled a pogrom in the Ukraine to remake his life in America, but was cut down. Brik feels as if he is being beckoned by this mysterious figure. He wishes to go sniffing for traces of Averbuch’s life, exhume it, and grant this Lazarus, too, a kind of resurrection. Armed with a writer’s grant, he sets off for the Ukraine with a photographer friend, Rora, in search of Lazarus.

As established by his earlier books, notably The Question of Bruno, Hemon can write sentences of startling beauty, and cut through to the essence of a character with a single arrow: “Like Rora, she was sovereign when silent; her silence was not an absence of words, it was a thing unto itself, shaped by her.”

But the difficulty with The Lazarus Project is that the double-pronged narration, helmed by Brik and opening up intermittently to the more intense and impassioned world of Lazarus, does not allow the story to break free of its moorings in the way novelistic narration can and should. We are intrigued by the poetic yearning and idealism of Lazarus, but he comes to us hemmed in by the prosaic and uninteresting figure of Brik (tellingly, no one in the novel, not even his wife, seems to like or love him very much). The act of sympathetic imagining, which is the only thing Averbuch's story is and can be, is not only overwhelmed by the dullness of Brikian reality, but also diffused by the jostling between narrator and character.

Hemon seems to be deferring here to a modern convention in which the act and labour of storytelling is emphasised, not elided, and multiple narrations proceed in parallel. But his frame narrative waters down the charge of the life of Lazarus for which it is a conduit, so that what we get is a story that seems almost afraid of itself: indeed, a story that indicts itself through the use of the plodding word project.

An extract from The Lazarus Project can be read here. And here is a story by Hemon: "Stairway To Heaven" and an autobiographical essay, "Rationed".

Sunday, September 07, 2008

On Orhan Kemal's The Idle Years

Novels are a source of comfort and psychological sustenance to their readers, but they can be so to their writers too. This is especially true for writers working in an autobiographical mode. The novel, here, is like a beam turned in upon oneself, lighting up old shadows and nooks -- or it might be thought of as a mirror in which one's old faces successively appear. The forward march of the narrative in this case also a backward journey into time, and the slow time and fruitful agitation of writing throw up memories long submerged.
These are the speculations occasioned by The Idle Years, a novel first published in two parts in 1949 and 1950 by the great Turkish writer Orhan Kemal (often referred to in the English-speaking world as "the Turkish Dickens"), and now newly and strikingly translated by Cengiz Luhal. Although it is sometimes a mistake to link a writer's books too simply to his autobiography, it would seem that a discussion of The Idle Years would at least begin with such a reading.

The unnamed narrator of the book is the son of a charismatic political agitator who is sent into exile with his family after falling foul of the Turkish regime in the 1920s. Brought up in a large house with all the comforts of life, the protagonist is suddenly pitchforked into a life in which the family is always on the move, money is scarce, and the father's temper thunderous. He is forced to work at menial jobs, and begins to keep the company of a set whom he had previously seen only from afar, and with no consideration of their miseries: workers, vagabonds, and prostitutes. He is constantly hungry, and when granted a good meal through luck, comradeship or charity not only eats ravenously but also remembers every dish and every helping for days. He is often consumed by despair and by shame, but most of all loathes the heavy hand and bellowing voice of his father.

This story broadly follows the contours of Kemal's own youth, and it might be seen as part of that current in literature in which writers mull over the weight placed on their lives, in both good and bad ways, by their fathers: the early novels and later autobiographical meditations of VS Naipaul, for instance, or Franz Kafka's anguished Letter To My Father, or even the essays of Kemal's famous countryman Orhan Pamuk (whose Nobel Prize acceptance speech is called "My Father's Suitcase", and who has written a short, admiring foreword for this book).

Indeed, the first part of The Idle Years is called My Father's House, and its closing movement is one in which the protagonist resolves to leave that house, and returns from Beirut to his homeland to strike out on his own. In one of the novel's best passages, the narrator returns to his hometown, Adana, hot with stories of his itinerant life to tell his childhood friends, only to find that nothing is as it used to be. The place the heart thinks of as home is a pillar to one's self but fragile on its own terms.

Kemal's novel beautifully evokes the world-changing ardour and angst of youth, the consolations of friendship, the aches and burns of love, and the redemption of constant misery and hardship by small acts of kindness or brief interludes of escape. He is considered a great writer of dialogue, and in Luhal's translation the reader can see why. Many of his characters are real talkers, but they talk in a stop-start and naturalistic fashion, leaping from one subject to another, or revealing some particularity of their character through a repeated emphasis. They don't always know what they are saying, though characters in other kinds of novels seem to.

The Idle Years ends with a scene in which the protagonist, still impoverished, marries his beloved wearing a borrowed suit, shoes, and tie. The newlyweds are excited by the beautiful gifts that they have been given, and begin to construct a castle of dreams upon them, only to find out that the groom's grandmother borrowed them all from family and friends to give the wedding a glitter, and that the goods must now all be returned. This episode is symbolic of the whole story, in which hope and yearning are always trying to break free of the chains of reality, and disappointment is quickly forgotten. The last line of Kemal's novel - "So we carried on with our lives, appreciating all that we had" - seems both an observation of a fact and a piece of friendly advice to the reader.
And some other essays on Turkish literature: "Nazim Hikmet in prison" (Hikmet and Kemal were contemporaries, and spent time in prison together, and indeed one register of The Idle Years is distinctly Hikmetian), "Orhan Veli Kanik all of a sudden", and "On Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red".