Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
12 - 18 August 1999
Issue No. 442
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

Books for a burning month
Holiday reading and what the writers read

Translating Egypt
Hala Halim finds consummate translation skills and less compelling ethnography in Ahdaf Soueif's most recent counter-narrative

Extract from The Map of love
By Ahdaf Soueif

Metropolitan musings
A new French translation of a Gamal El-Ghitani novel appeared last month. David Tresilian, in Paris, interviews the translator and meanders through the novel Francophone readers

I know what you read this summer
All writers and artists intereviewed by Hala Halim

An elusive graveyard
Ra'ihat Al-Burtuqal (The Smell of Orange), Mahmoud El-Wardani, Cairo: Maktabat Al-Osra (Family Library), GEBO, 1999. pp115

A century of fantasy
Awalim Borges Al-Khayaliya (Borges's Universe of Fantasy), translated and introduced by Khalil Kalfat, Cairo: Afaq Al-Tarjama (Translations) Series, Cultural Palaces Organisation, July 1999. pp140

Author and character
without disguise

Manamat 'Amm Ahmed Al-Sammak (The Dreams of 'Amm Ahmed the Fishmonger), Khairi Shalabi, Cairo: Al-Hilal, 1999. pp285

What the winter said
Youssef Rakha discusses Salah Abdel-Sabour's Layla wal-Majnoun, now part of the Kitab fi Garida Series, a joint project of Al-Ahram and UNESCO, translating an extract from the play

Thus spoke the Ustaz

To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index. 


Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Metropolitan musings

Reviewed by David Tersilian

Gamal El-Ghitani Chath al-Madina (Les Délires de la Ville), Gamal el-Ghitani, translated from the Arabic by Khaled Osman, Paris: Actes Sud, 1999. pp262

Les Délires de la Ville (City Madness), which is an elegant French version by Khaled Osman of Gamal el-Ghitani's 1991 novel Chath al-Madina, continues certain of the author's well-known projects. Among these, the sometimes uneasy relation of tradition to modernity, the construction of a literary space within which personal and cultural memory can be conveniently explored, and certain allied experiments with narrative and with fictional form are key. El-Ghitani demonstrated the interest of this programme in his best-known novel, al-Zayni Barakat (1971), which has been translated into both French (Seuil) and English, and which did much to establish his reputation among non-arabophones. While Barakat was however also a work of linguistic research, since, in writing of the world of the Egyptian Mamelukes immediately before the Ottoman invasion in 1517 he did so in a language redolent of the period, in the later novel el-Ghitani has plumped instead for the international and contemporaneous world of the academic lecture circuit. Nevertheless in writing of his modern, western or 'westernised' city, structured by a sometimes open, sometimes hidden rivalry between 'university' and 'municipal' life, el-Ghitani has carried over something of the deeper sensibility of the earlier novel, and he has done so using a characteristic, autobiographical voice.

The novel's outline may be swiftly indicated. An Egyptian intellectual, whose field of competence remains vague, is invited to attend an international conference to mark the anniversary of the foundation of a major foreign university. He is, however, only the university authorities' second choice; a more famous compatriot, who had initially accepted the invitation, is at the last minute unable to attend, and efforts are thus made to find a replacement. As a result of this situation the novel's protagonist feels doubly excluded in the unfamiliar surroundings of the city in which the conference takes place. On the one hand he feels bored and irritated by the political rhetoric of, in particular, the conference's closing session, to which, as a 'representative' of the developing world he is expected to make a contribution. On the other, he is in any case only present by substitution. Any contribution he might feel able to make to the conference proceedings as himself, or in his own voice, is thus ruled out from the start; for, by virtue of the usual formal qualities of such occasions, it is not who he is that matters, but the constituency that he might be taken to represent. And, as we know, his qualification for this role is at least unclear, given the superior claims of his compatriot. He is there to fill an empty place in the conference's final photograph, to speak for those who are not there, and whom he might be taken to represent, in the accents of someone who is unable to attend. Little wonder then that he spends little time at the university, and is preoccupied by his relation to these events and to the world in which he suddenly finds himself. He carefully guards his passport, as this document, he feels, gives him some reassurance. Predictably, by the end of the novel, he has lost even that.

There is a Kafkaesque quality to Les Délires de la Ville. Sometimes, in fact, there is the sense that episodes of the novel would not be out of place in The Trial, particularly the protagonist's interrogation at the hands of the police: not only does he have no passport, but he is suspected of having overstayed his visa. There is the sense of a powerful bureaucratic machinery grinding away in the background of every act. Papers are 'out of order'. Sanctions are threatened if regulations are not followed. But how does one find out what the regulations are? And whom can one trust? Inevitable retreat is made to a private world of memories and of reverie, given the debased and opaque character of public discourse. Not so very much has changed from the allegorical world of al-Zayni Barakat, where, in the words of Edward Said, it is 'the monopoly of political power, the growth of corruption in the highest quarters, the ubiquity of secret intelligence, the pervasiveness of political intimidation' that is at stake. However in this later novel, as perhaps in the former, having retreated from the corrupt public world to one of 'personal relationships', or the 'stream of [individual] consciousness', where it is assumed authenticity resides, the discovery is made that even there madness (délires) and uncertainty lie. Early on in the novel the protagonist is contacted by 'your friend, the Moroccan'. But does he have a Moroccan friend? Could he not also be a police agent? Later he yearns to make emotional contact with a young woman who shows him the city and is open to his talk of himself and of his country ('...And foul dumyati, Upper-Egyptian molokhiyyah, fish from Port Said and fetir sharqaoui. She gave him an enquiring look. Famous dishes from my country.') Perhaps here he can escape his isolation. She, however, rebuffs him. Isn't it also possible that she is a police informer? As for the quality of his own subjectivity, and the sound, as it were, of his own voice, here it seems impossible to establish any clear sense of who he is, what his history has been, what the status of the memories and reflections that he speaks in the first person are. Is it not possible that he is speaking somebody else's lines even to himself, as much as filling somebody else's place? Having lost his identity papers, by what means might he establish who he is, not now for the police, but for himself?

One of the most remarked formal features of el-Ghitani's writing is its 'intertextuality'. An artefact of academic literary criticism, the term denotes the presence in texts of other texts, perhaps not so much in the intentional form of citations, but in the sense that every text, according to this line of thought, is a 'tissue' made up of other texts (text = Latin textus, an interlacing, woven material). According to the French critic Roland Barthes, writing in the Encyclopaedia Universalis between entries on 'La Texas' and 'Textiles (Fibres)' -- and wouldn't one be right to see evidence of a kind of 'intertextuality' there? -- 'every text is an intertext. Other texts are present in it at various levels and in forms that are more or less recognisable. These consist of texts taken from the older culture and from that which presently surrounds the text; every text is a new fabric woven from quotations from the past. Fragmentary codes, formulas, rhythmic forms, bits of social discourse (langages sociaux) find their way through the text and are distributed across it; there is always a broader discourse (langage) that precedes and envelops each individual text.' Les Délires de la Ville, like el-Ghitani's other novels, is 'a text' of this sort (perhaps it is not 'a novel' at all?); narrative advance is sacrificed to gentle meanderings in textual hinterlands, where one is forever tempted 'to retrace one's steps'. Personal memories invade the protagonist's thoughts and cultural ones are forever intervening in his relation with the city. Nothing lives only in the present tense, though it is in the present that the past has to take its chance.

In its original formulations from the 1970s and the hothouse environment of Parisian literary-critical pow-wows, the notion of intertextuality involved far more than just formal features of the literary text. Barthes, in the article quoted from above, remarks that the new notion of 'text' replaces older, 'positivistic' ones. Julia Kristeva, to whom he makes reference, writes in her book La Révolution du Langage Poétique, l'Avant-Garde à la Fin du XIXème Siècle ('The Revolution in Poetic Discourse in the Avant-Garde at the End of the Nineteenth Century', 1974) that it is symptomatic of wider uncertainties. 'Intertextuality' is but one feature of the new conception of the 'signifying practice', which has replaced 'writing', or has extended what is normally understood by this term. While the sometimes 'incomprehensible' writings of the French late nineteenth-century poets Mallarmé and Lautréamont 'underlined the limits of socially useful discourse and bore witness to what this suppressed', they also, through their 'most spectacular fragmentation of discourse' involved, an 'explosion (éclatement) of the subject and its ideological limits'. The literary avant-garde of the period is to be placed in relation with developments both in the capitalist socio-economic system and in psychoanalysis that were taking place at the same time. At the very least it can be said that one approach to the very curious mélange of styles, citations, memories and historical voices that the el-Ghitani 'I' inevitably seems to involve would be to look at it in terms of such a programme. This is particularly true, perhaps, for the hitherto untranslated 'hybrid' works, such as the Kitab al-Tajalliyat (3 vols., 1983-6), in which the author uses Ibn Arabi as a source text for an autobiographical mix of historical, personal and political materials.

Barthes makes the charming suggestion that the study of the text 'as text', being the interlacement of 'codes, formulas, meanings, at the centre of which the subject is placed and is unraveled, like a spider that weaves itself into its web', demands the invention of a new discipline, that of 'hyphology' from 'hyphos, the spider's net or web'. Well maybe. But what of the flies that the spider catches? Before further exchanges between Arabic-speaking and European readers and critics can take place however, there is a need for a larger sample of el-Ghitani's work to be made available in translation. High-quality versions of many of his novels exist (the GEBO, for example, has published Peter Daniel's English translation (1986) of Waqa'i Harat al-Za'farani (1976) -- as Incidents in Zafrani Alley), but much remains to be done. Les Délires de la Ville is an interesting and intriguing book; anyone reading it is likely to want to read further work by its author.

* Minarets "When had he begun to feel that terrible fear that sleep would carry him off when he was abroad? His tired mind would then watch the scenes that followed his death: the discovery of the corpse laid out on the bed; the lifting of the body and its carrying away to be buried; the impact of the news on those who knew him -- whether friends linked by ties of affection, or others with whom relations were more distant or had even been broken off. And then the inexorable process of forgetting would begin, how his memory would slowly fade from people's minds and eventually would completely disappear. According to the old proverb, 'The world is built on forgetting those that we loved'. And besides, perhaps this city itself, where, unexpectedly, at present he could hear the winds of violence blowing, perhaps it was nothing other than the remains of a past that was slowly being rubbed away as each day passed, or was sinking further into oblivion. Perhaps it too was giving up all trace of the past to myths that would eventually envelop everything; perhaps the story that was told of his death too would just be added to the legends of the Forty Sages -- if death were to carry him away here."

Gamal el-Ghitani, Les Délires de la Ville

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