Monthly Archives: May 2015

“… … the question remained unanswered, suspended between them in the emptiness.”: Latifa al-Zayyat’s ‘The Open Door’

“Everyone was in tune with everyone else, just as if we were members of a society and knew and agreed on its tiniest regulations, or the gears of a clock moving at exactly the same pace and in the same direction, all the time, one direction that everyone knows, clear, logical, in sequence.”

There is a passage in Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk (reviewed here), that perhaps best illustrates his unique approach towards social realism through the novel. Encouraged by her children, the progatonist, Amina, has overcome a lifetime of conditioning in patriarchal households (first of her father, and then of her husband) to leave her home by herself, and venture out into the world – all the way to a sufi shrine at the other end of the street. Mahfouz describes the moment when she is poised at the threshold of a new world with its newly broken boundaries:

She stopped for a moment before plunging into the alley. She turned to look at her latticed balcony. She could make out the shadows of her two daughters behind one panel. Another panel was raised to reveal the smiling faces of Fahmy and Yasin.”

 The two daughters behind one, closed panel, only visible as shadows. The two sons behind the other, raised and open to the world, smiling. In this way, without saying anything, Mahfouz paints a powerful picture of the repressed and patriarchal society – more powerful than words.

But if Mahfouz’s approach is the scalpel, leaving its impact by subtle suggestion and lingering allusions, Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door, set in Cairo during more or less the same period as Palace Walk (1946 – 1956, before and leading up to Nasser’s revolution and the nationalisation of the Canal), is a blunt hammer, driving home its point with repeated, unambiguous force.

Like Palace WalkThe Open Door is a book about a family, navigating their way through the tumultuous political backdrop in 1950s Egypt. It tells the story of Layla, a girl growing up in a middle-class Cairo household, along with a galaxy of sometimes recognisable characters: a conservative father, a softer (repressed) mother, a brother (Mahmud) who is a fiery political activist, a more circumspect cousin (Isam) who falls in love with her, and cousin (Gamila) with an ever-calculating mother determined to marry her upwards, and a pose of friends and relatives. As with Mahfouz’s novel, the family is faced with rapidly changing times, a world in which traditions are being questioned as never before, where iconoclasm is met with an even fiercer backlash, and where the clarion call – “Obey the fundamentals, and life will have no suffering” – can no longer hold the imagination as it once did.

But there the similarities end. Palace Walk is polyvocal, often detached account, relying upon detail in description, and sharp allusions for its impact. The Open Door, on the other hand, is like an autobiography in third person – an autobiography of the protagonist Layla, as she goes through school and university, falls in love and has her heart broken, rebels and capitulates, all the way up to the brink of a disastrous, imposed marriage – all the while in the backdrop of Egypt’s political turmoil – the anti-imperialist struggles against the British, the protest marches, Nasser’s revolution, and the three-pronged attack after the nationalisation of the Canal. I say “third-person autobiography” because of a substantial amount of interior dialogue: we see the world through Layla’s eyes – through the eyes of a women at the threshold of adulthood, whose view of the world is shaped before our eyes by events, whose understanding of injustice is felt rather than reasoned, whose anger is unconstrained by dissimulation, and above all, who is free with her thoughts.

The risk with such an approach to the novel is, of course, the risk of descending into political polemic, and/or caricaturing your characters. Indeed, there are moments when Layla’s judgements seem too pat, and the book’s political message too divorced from the story that it is telling. When, for instance, her brother, Mahmud, fails to replicate his political liberalism from the protest march in his conduct towards his own sister within the home, her thoughts flow:

“He knew what was wrong, what was right, she understood that – but he knew it on paper. Yes, on paper.”

One might think that this is unnecessary, and too intense a belabouring of a point already made. A couple of reviews that I read criticised The Open Door for being too blatantly allegorical, for writing Layla as if she is the embodiment and symbolisation of Egypt on the cusp of Revolution.

I think, though, that the criticisms are unfounded. There are two reasons why The Open Door is saved from the mediocrity of the kitsch “political art” that Milan Kundera ridicules in his novels. The first is al-Zayyat’s extraordinary sensitivity towards the uncertain glories and perilous uncertainties of youth. Layla’s longing for stability after a fiery relationship crashes and burns is described in the following, wonderful way:

“For that was a space where one lived in perpetual fever. You never knew exactly where you stood; you saw things not as they really were; you felt a strength you did not really possess, a beauty you could not really claim, and a happiness bigger than one person could acquire. For the threat that connected one to the sky was fragile; it might break suddenly, and you would tumble to earth and shatter.”

Layla’s falling in love, being broken, and healing, are portrayed with an empathy and an understanding that would resonate with every reader, and make it difficult not to be passionately rooting for her by the end of the story. Her revolt and her suffocation are perhaps dated, but never alien. Her dreams are the dreams we have all dreamt, and her disillusionment is painfully familiar. Along with all the other characters, but more than them, she feels alive.

The second is an equal sensitivity towards image and metaphor. Whenever the interior monologue runs the risk of becoming too overtly political or dreary, al-Zayyat punctuates it with delicate, almost gossamer imagery. She describes the first, hesitant sliver of feeling between Layla and Isam in this manner:

“The glimmer ran from her lips, from her face and body to Isam; it settled in the space between then, a gaze that remained incomplete, a touch that was not quite there, sentences that had no periods. The light cocooned them, a single image, apart form all around them.”

And the domineering nature of al-Ramzi, the University teacher who insidiously attempts to bend Layla to his will, paving the ground for a future engagement and a suffocating marriage:

“He was a sculptor playing his chisel, now delicately, now almost violently, and always with studied care. Here a light touch, here a deep furrow, here a chunk that must be dislodged entirely, and here a segment that required only refining and polishing. The lineaments of the statue emerged gradually, notch after notch, dent by dent, cut away by the artist’s will.” 

The Open Door has been called the first feminist Arab novel. It is an easy – and true – characterisation. The protagonist is a woman, the dominant theme is (as was said about Llosa) the “cartography of power, and the individual’s resistance” against patriarchy. But I think it is much more than that: it is a delightful exploration of the tragedy of being young in a society that is like a chrysalis: where an alternative future can be imagined, where it is on the cusp of coming into being, and yet is farther away than eternity.

The Open Door is available from the website of the publishers here.

And from Amazon, here.

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Filed under Egypt, Latifa al-Zayyat, Middle-Eastern Writing

“… in squalid and ferocious geometry”: Italo Calvino, ‘The Road to San Giovanni’

“What had the cinema meant to me in this context? I suppose: distance. It satisfied a need for distance, for an expansion of the boundaries of the real, for seeing immeasurable dimensions open up all around me, abstract as geometric entities, yet concrete too, crammed full of faces and situations and settings which established an (abstract) network of relationships with the world of direct experience.”

Reading Italo Calvino is like trying to grasp a fistful of clouds and mist. His words, phrases, sentences arrange themselves into constellations that are suggestive of familiar experiences, when seen from a far distance; but their suggestiveness depends upon suspending the concrete ways in which we relate to the world, and embarking upon a wild leap of imagination. For me, this leap is possible only for momentary instances, that split second in which you’re suspended in mid-air, before gravity grounds you again. This is why I think of his writing as clouds and mist – in its distance-yet-nearness, its affinity to touch, yet resistance to being grasped and held, and its momentariness.

The Road to San Giovanni is a fascinating collection of five essays, because it begins with Calvino’s self-reflective, autobiographical journey, which gives us a glimpse of how his mind came to transmute the concrete into cloud and mist – and then demonstrates that mind at work (without quite losing that critical distance to fiction). The first two essays – The Road to San Giovanni and A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography – are in the first category, before a gradual, almost imperceptible shift from reflections upon method to the method itself, until in the last essay – Calvino’s musings upon his aesthetic – style an content have become almost as blurred as they are in his fiction.

In the opening, eponymous essay – The Road to San Giovanni – Calvino recalls accompanying his father on the morning walk from their house to their farm at San Giovanni. Calvino draws a vivid picture of his father’s earthiness – his love of plants, his deep knowledge of their taxonomy, his daily proximity to the ‘natural’ world – before sharply setting it against his own, contrarian slowly-forming consciousness:

“To my father’s mind, words must serve as confirmations of things, and as signs of possession; to mine they were foretastes of things barely glimpsed, not possessed, presumed. My father’s vocabulary welled outward into the interminable catalogue of the genuses, species and varieties of the vegetable world – every name was a distinction plucked from the dense compactness of the forest in the belief that one had thus enlarged man’s dominion – and into technical terminology, where the exactness of the word goes hand in hand with the studied exactness of the operation… I could recognize not a single plant or bird. The world of things was mute for me. The words that flowed and flowed inside my head weren’t anchored to objects but to emotions, fantasies, forebodings. And all it took was for a scrap of newspaper to find its way beneath my feet and I would be engrossed in soaking up the writing on it, mutilated and unmentionable – names of theatres, actresses, vanities – and already my mind would be racing off, the sequence of images would go on for hours and hours as I walked silently behind my father.”

This idea – that words do not describe (or, for that matter, construct) reality, but are “foretastes of things bearely glimpsed, not possessed, presumed“, is (I think) at the heart of all Calvino’s writing. Think of The Castle of Crossed Destinies, where allegory is piled upon allegory, a set of worlds imagined and connected through a structure of overlapping – yet chaotically arranged – tarot cards. Or think of Invisible Cities, invisible only to sensory perception, but cities that we have all imagined, in fragments and in parts. Nietzsche described words as rainbow bridges (rainbows — presenting the illusion of a pot of gold at their ever-receding end, much like words hold out the illusory promise of conclusion and possession upon their mastery?) – and truly, in reading Calvino, I often feel as though I’m walking on a rainbow-bridge, with the only thing holding me up are the fragile and ambiguous strands of imagination.

The concrete is a source of disenchantment. So Calvino describes the neat symmetry of farmland as a “squalid and ferocious geometry.” In On the Road, Jack Kerouac writes about how the Greeks, with their passion for symmetry, balance and geometry, got their aesthetics hopelessly wrong. Calvino, like Kerouac, rebels against this sense of conclusion, of finality, and of control – although in a very different way.

It is not, however, that Calvino is entirely convinced of his way. In The Road to San Giovanni, he describes his dissociation with his father’s way of life as  “the loss that I inflicted on myself, the thousands of losses we inflict on ourselves and for which there is no making amends.” But it would seem to be a necessary – if tragic – loss, because, as he writes in A Cinema Goer’s Autobiography, we all need to find something that allows us to relate to the world in a way that gives it fullness, necessity and coherence – and this, in a way that he describes as:

“… a need for distance, for an expansion of the boundaries of the real, for seeing immeasurable dimensions open up all around me, abstract as geometric entities, yet concrete too, crammed full of faces and situations and settings which established an (abstract) network of relationships with the world of direct experience.”

“Abstract, yet concrete too” may sound like a strange paradox, but for me, the paradox dissolves when I think – again – of his writing as clouds and mist, or as a constellation: concrete in the sense of a part of our world, embedded in the here and the now of sensory perception, but abstract in the sense of not being completed by it. Perhaps this is best exemplified in Memories of a Battle, where Calvino describes (I use the word “describes” in its loosest sense) a battle that he participated in on the side of the Partisans during World War II. In a short essay, Calvino invokes seven different images and metaphors to “describe” memory, each time hinting at its incompleteness. Memories are “sandgrains… in the damp bed of sand deposited on the bottom of the stream of thought.” They are “lurking like eels in the pools of the mind“, needing to be stirred so that they can rise to the surface. They constitute the “trail… that crumble[s] under pressure“, like their trail towards the besieged village on the night of battle. They are uncertain, like the “uncertainty of the light and the season and what was to follow.” They are buried “under the sedimentary crust of hindsight.” They are at a valley bottom, and Calvino fears that “as soon as memory forms it immediately takes on the wrong light, mannered, sentimental as war and youth always are, becomes a piece of narrative written in the style of the time, which can’t tell us how things really were but only how we thought we saw them, thought we said them.” And lastly, memory is like a “broken net“, that holds some things, but nor others. What unites these very diverse set of images is an echoing sense of uncertainty and distance, which – in turn – is made vaguely concrete by Calvino’s choice of precisely those images that are in some loose way connected with the night of battle.

“Just steep gorges, beds of dry streams overrun by brambles and ferns, smooth pebbles your hobnail shoes slither on, and we’re still at the beginning of the approach march, just as it’s an approach march I’m trying to make now on the trail of memories that crumble under pressure, not visual memories because it was a moonless starless night, memories of my body slithering in the dark, with half a plate of chestnuts in my stomach…”

But in La Poubelle Agreee, a meditation upon garbage disposal in Paris, Calvino becomes far more circumspect, acknowledging that this world of gossamer webs is only made possible by the very real. In one of the most direct observations of the book, he notes that “our genteel lifestyle seemed guaranteed for all eternity by the availability of cheap labour…”, before going on to echo Aristotle’s understanding of the public/private divide (albeit in a very different way):

“…that heaven of ideas in which we undeservedly soar (or imagine we soar) and which can exist only in so far as we are not overwhelmed by the waste with which every act of living incessantly produces.”

But much like The Road to San Giovanni, this understanding is fleeting. By the time we come to the last essay – Calvino’s reflections upon his own style – the concrete has disappeared entirely, and we are back in world of mist and clouds. But I think that those observations in The Road to San Giovanni and La Poubelle Agreee remain crucial, because they show that Calvino possesses the self-awareness to know and understand what it takes for those clouds and mist to exist. Less Wilde’s clarion call of “art for art’s sake“, this is more reminiscent of those immortal lines of Auden:

Nor ask what doubtful act allows

Our freedom in this English house

Our picnics in the sun.”

And it this self-awareness, I feel, that adds immeasurable depth and richness to this book.

 

 

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