A Voltaire for the New Millenium

Title:  Cairo:  Memoir of a City Transformed by Ahdaf Soueif
Publisher:  Pantheon Books, New York (2014)

The questions that are being settled on the streets of Egypt are of concern to everyone. The paramount one is this: can a people’s revolution that is determinedly democratic, grassroots, inclusive, and peaceable succeed?

Cairo erupted during eighteen days between January 25th and February 11th, 2011.  It was one of the first in what became the string of global protests that were held in 2011 & early 2012.  That chain included the Tunisian “Jasmine” Revolution; America’s Occupy Wall Street (the OCCUPY banner of which was taken up by groups in England, Germany and Ireland, among others); the 15-M Movement in Spain and the protests in Italy and Greece.  Most of these movements continue barely acknowledged by the media.  The common cause of the protesters: income inequality.   In the West this was and is represented by the banking system and finance industry – the ubiquitous 1%.  Government corruption are also being targeted.  And while most of these protests began peacefully, few have ended so.

Ahdaf Soueif is perhaps best known for her novels In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love; and her marriage to the late author Ian Hamilton. She is also a journalist, translator, and political activist who calls both London and Cairo home.  Her son, Omar Robert Hamilton, is a filmmaker and a founding member of the activist media collective Mosireen.  Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed expands on her earlier account of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution Cairo:  My City, Our Revolution, published in 2012 by Bloomsbury UK.  This new edition includes a final chapter entitled “Eighteen Days Were Never Enough”.

What happened during those original eighteen days?  The Egyptian people, led by the Egyptian youth (Shabaab) , descended on Tahrir Square demanding that Mubarak step down and Democratic elections be held.  The political factions – and they were many – formed a temporary truce in support of the greater good.  The Egyptian Army stood with the protesters.  At least for a time.  Mubarak’s people sent wave after wave of attacks, sometimes covertly through saboteurs who infiltrated the Square.  Many young people were injured or killed.  Their leaders were imprisoned.  Throughout this time, Tahrir Square was transformed.  Much like Zuccotti Park in NYC, it became a campground, a festival and a political stage.

Both books seem to be based on the journals and notes Soueif kept as events were happening; she frequently refers to her determination to act as a witness  But her writing is more polished, more novelistic, than a simple journal entry.  Her words lack the immediacy of a true, first hand report.  Ms. Soueif narrates in over-ripe prose; managing to capture all of the romance, exuberance and child-like euphoria of those early days of revolution.  Every moment is saturated with portent and emotion.  Her family members stride, godlike across the pages – often appearing and acting as a collective.  The scenes where she describes them coming together take on the characteristics of the magical realism genre.  As in the scene where they celebrate her nephew’s release from prison and the birth of his son (the newest member of this tightly knit family).

We swept and cleaned the house I’d refurbished in my mother’s orchard. We laid out tables and chairs and strung up colored lights and strings of Egyptian flags. We set up a barbecue, and all our family and friends and friends of friends came and brought lots of food. We played music and danced and carried Khaled in a satin-lined sieve into every room and into all the dark corners so he would know his wa;y and know there was nothing,ever, to be afraid of, and we sprinkled the seven seeds in his path so he would always have plenty, and we sang to him the old instructions to obey his mother and father and added that he must never ever obey SCAF or a government. My mother’s orchard was teaming and buzzing and radiating love and light. And just before midnight, we all drove to Tahrir – the biggest family home in the world.  And despite the dark days, Tahrir was full of hope and joy, and there was music and song and a church choir and people all the time gathering around Alaa and talking talking talking about the future and what we need to do.*

This isn’t meant as a negative criticism – quite the opposite. Cairo is the antithesis of what we’ve come to expect from the political book.  The novelistic quality – the over exuberance – of Soueif’s narrative voice is precisely what makes it so accessible and addictive.  It balances the obvious care taken revising and re-editing the text.  There is even a post-modern element – Soueif is very aware that the present in which these words are being read is different from her present.  That her readers exist in an uncertain future.

And so we follow the author as she moves between Tahrir Square, the various homes and offices of her family and the news studios from which she sends out dispatches to contradict the “official” reports being released by the government.  There is an emotional investment in what is happening – remember, these are her children and this is her city. Souef’s son, nieces and nephews, sisters and brothers, friends and neighbors all play a part.  Her worry and pride is palpable, stirring the same in her readers.  While her generation is involved,  the 2011 Revolution is primarily led by the  Shabaab.  They are the front line.  And there are times when the streets surrounding the Square were a war zone.

For those who only know Soueif as a novelist, Cairo is a vivid reminder of her roots in journalism.  She possesses the ability to step back and recognize the larger implications of what is happening in her home country.  And so she interrupts herself (in a chapter called, appropriately, “An Interruption”.  Interjecting from 18 months in the future to report on the current state of the Revolution.   The format is the same one she uses throughout the entire book.  The narrative loosely organized into days and hours.   But the exuberance is momentarily gone.  The movement’s leaders, many of the same nieces as nephews who we stood in the Square with a few pages ago, are now being accused and arrested.  Fissures are forming between the different political parties.  The population of the city is growing weary of the interruptions to their lives.   A lot has changed.  Soueif acknowledges that even more time has passed for the reader.  That even more changes of which she is unaware will occur.  “You… are in a future unknown to me”.  And of course she is right.

In the present we know that Mubarak was forced out, that general elections were held and Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected president.  In June of 2013 public protests were held calling for his resignation and in July he was forcibly removed by a military coup.  Adly Mahmoud Mansour was appointed interim president.  The military has in recent months begun a crackdown on leaders of the 2011 revolution and Morsi is facing charges of incitement of murder, violence and of espionage.  A police station in Mansoura was bombed on December 24th and the government is declaring the Muslim Brotherhood responsible (despite the group’s denials).  They’ve been labeled a terrorist organization in Egypt.  The network that ran Mubarak’s security state, by many accounts, is back.  Violence swells, breaks and recedes for a time, only to swell again.  And readers outside of Egypt are left trying to sift the news for truth.

“This book is not a record of an event that’s over; it’s an attempt to welcome you into, to make you part of, an event that we’re still living.  And there are two problems in the writing of it.  One is that while the eighteen days are locked into the past, the revolution and the fight to hold on to it continue, and every day the landscape shifts.  THe other is that you – my reader – are in a future unknown to me, and yet I want to tell a story that will ease the leap you need to make between where this book stops and where Egypt is as you read.”

For those interested in learning more, the New York Times publishes up to date news on events in Egypt here. You can follow Ahdaf Soueif on Twitter @asoueif and her son, Omar Robert Hamilton, @ORHamilton.

* To clarify: Khaled is the infant

Publisher: Pantheon Books, New York (2014)

ISBN: 978 0 307 90810 0

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter

A True Novel SlipcaseA True Novel by Japanese author Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, has been receiving a lot of positive attention since its release this past November by Other Press.*  Not least because it comes in a lovely two-volume, illustrated and slip-cased edition.  Most readers will come to A True Novel, or avoid it, based on the Wuthering Heights connection. But this reinvention of that classic novel, set in post-war Japan, manages to transcend the material on which it is based.

The major themes are the same: gorgeous landscapes; a tragic love story; ghosts; unreliable (and multiple) narrators. And if that was all A True Novel was – a simple retelling of a classic tale, with the same characters placed in a more modern setting –  getting through 880 pages might have been more of a challenge.  But the differences are significant.  Mizumura’s decision to set her story in the affluent and tranquil Summer community of Karuizawa, Japan – at a time of major social transition – instead of the tempestuous and dramatic Yorkshire moors changes the overall tone.  And the way she playfully approaches the act of homage transforms it into something else entirely: an elaborate version of whisper down the lane.

The novel has three distinct narrators. The first is Mizumura herself, who spends the first 150+ pages explaining her connection to the characters she writes about. This Preface and Prologue is meant to establish the illusion that the book is a work of non-fiction. An “I novel“. She explains how the bulk of the story was told to her by the second narrator: a young man named Yusuke who corresponds with the Lockwood character.  Yusuke, in turn, learned most of what he tells Mizumura through a third narrator: Fumiko is the maid who was actively involved in the lover’s adventures – Nelly Dean if you’re keeping track.  And so we are four times removed, reading Mizumura’s transcription of Yusuke’s retelling of Fumiko’s version of the events she witnessed (and influenced).  All of which is, once again, loosely based on Emily Bronte’s original Wuthering Heights. I use the term loosely because this is a version of Wuthering Heights as translated through the dual lenses of Japanese culture and language.

There’s a cleanness to Japanese translations that I adore. A sharpness and a clarity.  A characteristic stripping away of extraneous adjectives and sentimentality.  Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation is a sharp contrast to Bronte’s 19th-century Gothicism.  For an example: compare the words of the two heroines, Cathy & Yoko, describing their connection to their respective heroes -

“My great miseries in this world have been  Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger; I should not seem a part of it.” – Cathy

“I feel as if I’ve disappeared, myself.” She sounded even more remote.  It was as if while she was standing there her spirit had gone off to wander some far corner of the earth…  “I will never, ever forgive him,” she said in a low firm voice, and bit her lip again. “Never. Not as long as I live.” She put up a good front, but she may finally have begun to understand what it meant to be loved that much by someone like Taro – in a life she was given only one chance to live. – Yoko.

Yes, Mizumura’s prose (in Carpenter’s hands) is minimal. Particularly when compared to Bronte’s. But that doesn’t mean the words suffer from a lack of substance or are devoid of poetry. There is an aching sense of loss that permeates every character in every word on every page of A True Novel.  And it is still very much a ghost story; more so even than the original.  The characters in Wuthering Heights (including the dead) are vibrant, full of life and passion. Yoko and her lover Taro, Fumiko, the three sisters (who feature prominently and who I’ve intentionally avoided describing so that you can discover them for yourselves), even Yusuke… they are all haunted. Each has crossed an invisible line.  Their connections to the past  is stronger than their grounding in the present. As a result the reader instinctively understands that this story is over, the characters left wandering among shades, even as we are experiencing it for the first time.

 Anyway, in the end, as he alone knew – and knew only too well – she held absolute sway over him.

“You apologize!” The demand rang out more insistently.

In the white light of the full moon I saw Taro drop down on his knees and, supporting himself with both hands, lay his forehead flat on the ground in an attitude of abject apology.  The flashlight he’d laid down shone on the pebbles. I gasped as Yoko slipped off one wooden clog and put her bare foot on his head to press it down farther. There was no need for me to intrude, however. As soon as her toes touched his head, she lost her balance and toppled over, landing on the ground beside him. Now she began bawling even harder, fists in her eyes, elbows sticking out in the air. Taro jumped up, grabbed her by the hands, and pulled her up off the ground.  Then he was on his knees again. He took her bare foot in his hands and slipped the wooden clog back on, then brushed the dirt off the hem of her yukata. His slim figure was radiant in the light of the moon.

I watched in bemusement as the two children disappeared hand in hand up the dark mountain path to the strains of the “Tokyo Ballad.”

One item the many reviewers and fans of this book don’t seem to be discussing (except in passing) are the photographs.  Lovely black & white pictures with simple captions of the places where they were taken: “Western-Style Summer Villa With Bay Windows”; “Chikuma River”; “Oiwake Station”.  All places mentioned book. But deserted. Emptied of people. Brilliant.  The illustrator N.C. Wyeth once said that his goal was to illustrate the scenes that were not fully developed or described by the author.  His illustrations were created to add and build on the author’s text, not just interpret it. His portrait of blind Pew in Treasure Island being the most famous example.  Toyota Horiguchi’s gorgeous photographs are the next stage in the evolution of this tradition.

Toyota Horiguchi's black & white cover photos.

Toyota Horiguchi’s black & white cover photos.

A True Novel is a favorite among the judges of this year’s Best Translated Book Award. It’s a foregone conclusion that it will be on the long list.  I’d be shocked if it didn’t make the shortlist.  Should it win… well…  it would be a huge departure from past winners which have fallen into the category of less traditional (less accessible, even) works.  It’s looking to be an interesting contest and I can’t wait for  March 11th to see how it plays out.

Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 159051203 6

*Other Press consistently gives as much care to the quality of the physical book as it does to the words it contains.  They are one of my favorite publishers – always interesting and always innovative. And yet they’ve surpassed even my expectations with the loveliness of this book.