12 - 18 August 1999
Issue No. 442
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Books for a burning month
Holiday reading and what the writers read
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
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
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
An elusive graveyardReviewed by Youssef Rakha
With the publication of his first collection of short stories, Al-Sayr fi Al-Hadiqa Laylan (Walking in the Garden by Night, 1984), Mahmoud El-Wardani established himself as one of the principal champions of "the new sensibility," in the Egyptian novelist and critic Edwar El-Kharrat's now well-worn phrase (it is the title of one of El-Kharrat's essays of the time). Ranking, with writers such as Mohamed El-Makhzangi and El-Mansi Qandil, in the front line of the 1970s battalion of young fiction writers, El-Wardani's literary orientation was conceived, like theirs, in response to innovations undertaken by Egyptian writers during the 1960s (the so-called "generation of the sixties"). This new orientation promoted neutrality in the face of events, and a certain alienation before a world of objects.
Thus, El-Wardani's work is characterised by a consistently low-key, dispassionate tone. Precise, perfectly static descriptions of the everyday abound in his writing, and his disjointed dialogue, frequent use of interior monologue and discontinuous narration of events are unmistakable trademarks of his style. Even now, when he seems to have abandoned the short-story form and set out instead, like so many of his contemporaries, on an investigation of the possibilities of a more extended narrative form, El-Wardani has continued to explore the same repertoire of techniques and to deepen his mastery of it. This repertoire, which may be traced back to Bahaa Taher and Ibrahim Aslan of the sixties generation, is now so widely adopted that, according to El-Kharrat, it has almost acquired the status of convention. But it should be said that El-Wardani's use of the technique is far from routine: each writer of his generation has his own characteristics and individual approach, which, indeed, is only what one might have expected.
With the reissuing of Ra'ihat Al-Burtuqal (a book first published in 1991) in GEBO's Family Library Series this year, El-Wardani's status has been duly recognised. At last he has received the literary establishment's fully-fledged approval, or at least acknowledgement. However, though it would be inaccurate to say that El-Wardani's writing did not develop over the decade or so separating his first short stories from the publication of Ra'ihat Al-Burtuqal, yet it remains true to say that the latter is, in essence, 'an extension' of one of the earlier, experimental stories, albeit an extension that has been re-structured to include more individuals and a greater range of political/historical theme, though, as always, dealt with implicitly. It is no coincidence, for example, that the central vision in the title story of Al-Sayr fi Al-Hadiqa Laylan provides Ra'ihat Al-Burtuqal, with its disturbing, yet strangely serene, denouement. This material is gleaned, at least in part, from the writer's own experience.
During the 1973 (October) War, El-Wardani worked among those responsible for transporting the corpses of dead soldiers, and, in the short story in question, the process of carrying away, and eventually burying, a martyred child, is described with apparent indifference and in excruciating detail. Nobody who has read this description can possibly forget it, and it is probably this which has established El-Wardani's particular style in readers' minds. He had put his hands on the exact idiom required for such a subject; the cold, disinterested language if anything heightening the impression of an intensely disturbing experience, despite its harrowingly unemotional depiction. The story seems to have been based on a specific incident, since it is but the first example of what came to be a near obsession of El-Wardani's, as this vision of a dead child being carried to the graveyard recurs in his fiction. "I will not let you die", cries the protagonist to the anonymous, dead child. Nevertheless, now that the child has died, despite all his pleas, the protagonist's thoughts turn to his experience of burying the dead soldiers during the war: "You are cold in my hands, and it no longer makes sense trying to avoid that smell, a smell I thought I had rid myself of long ago. In the distant war... I had to carry martyred soldiers from hospital to cemetery. I could always distinguish that smell, despite the formaldehyde used on their bodies... Now it is my duty to bury [the child] and spare her little body... Where is the graveyard then? Could I have mistaken houses for graves?... At that point I decided to give up; I knew I would never find my way."
El-Wardani's books are difficult to summarise; they do not easily lend themselves to restatement; one can hardly provide the outline of the plot. Yet here in Ra'ihat Al-Burtuqal, there is once again a solitary man being followed (it is implied that he is the subject of political persecution), there is a female child, whom he at first mistakes for his own, as yet unborn, male child. There are the endless treks through Cairo in search of shelter and safety, which somehow always eludes him. Various real or imagined encounters punctuate the narrative; there are scattered, unmediated memories of a vague and unresolved past, evoked by both people and their surroundings.
Memories of war, of political internment, of the protagonist's marriage, of sexual encounters, flights through Cairo, faces, make up the texture of the narrative. And in the midst of this El-Wardani periodically, if subtly, directs attention to the novel's political and historical theme, which is one of the disappointment, disillusion and consequent persecution that followed President Sadat's peace treaty with Israel in 1979 "Sadat... a field-marshal with a duck-like gait". The book's central motif is one of oranges, or the "smell" of oranges, and it is this smell that the protagonist senses from the hair of the women who help him. Obviously, there is a strong contrast here to the smell of decaying corpses. Towards the end of the novel, in much the same way as houses suddenly being confused with graves, the protagonist's sense of smell seems to fail: "The smell of oranges overtook me all of a sudden, so I raised my eyes. I smelled the air and looked around, but it had already gone."
In the course of a journey that begins in an unidentified flat at sunset, and ends on an unidentified street at sunrise, El-Wardani manages to draw the contours not only of a unique literary structure, but also, if more obliquely, of a specific political and historical experience. Dreams dissolve into reality, just as the past dissolves into the present. El-Wardani's precise, unemotional depiction of these overwhelmingly concrete realities is a moving reflection on very emotional, very abstract registers of existence. Perhaps the elusive graveyard, which the protagonist is unable to find, is the bare minimum of respectability and self-respect with which the Egyptian citizen now seeks to clothe his tattered and worn existence? Yet these qualities, alas, are just as elusive as is the graveyard.