Tag Archives: revolution

Connections: Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk and Yuri Trifonov’s The Impatient Ones

Both Mahfouz’s Palace Walk (set in Cairo in the 1940s) and Trifonov’s The Impatient Ones (set in Russia in the 1870s) are about revolutions and doomed youth. At some point, they both have their protagonists think this:

“If the awesome upheaval had not occurred, Fahmy would have perished from grief and distress. He could not have stood for life to continue on in its calm, deliberate way, treading beneath it the destinies and hopes of men.” (Palace Walk)

“He thought to himself, and this nice young woman is hurrying us to kill, to blow things up, to give history a push. What is the reason for it – fashion? A deep inner need? Or just the immense, universal impossibility of going on in the old way?” (The Impatient Ones)


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Filed under Egypt, Middle-Eastern Writing, Naguib Mahfouz, Russia, Trifonov

“Daybreak came feebly, ash-grey…”: Ismail Kadare, ‘The Fall of the City of Stone’

1943. With Italy signing the Act of Capitulation to Germany, and pulling out of occupied Albania, the tanks of the Third Reich roll into the stone city of Gjirokaster. On the way, the Nazi commander is shot at in an ambush. Hostages are taken, and retribution is expected to be swift and ruthless. But by the time the next morning dawns, the commander has met Doctor Gurameto,  his dearest college friend, dined at his house, ordered all the hostages to be released, and left the city with his troops. And the reverberations from that fateful day and night will haunt the city for years to come.

This is the eighth Kadare novel that I’ve read, and certainly the most curious one. By now, there is something I’ve come to expect from him: the setting is either part-historical, part-mythical (The Palace of Dreams, The Three-Arched Bridge, The Pyramid, The Siege), or a very thinly fictionalised Albania (The File on H, Broken April); the story is, in some way, a meditation on the interconnections between poetry, myth, and the construction of national memory; and the writing is vividly imagistic, almost dream-like at times.

The Fall of the Stone City confounded all these expectations, not least because as I progressed through the book, I felt as if I was reading two or three different writers. In the opening scene, just as the German tanks are preparing to destroy Gjirokaster, someone waves the white flag of surrender from a window. The man (or woman) is never found, but the very idea of surrender is such an anathema to the city, that it invents a convenient myth to shield itself from its own, unsparing gaze:

“The explanation was very simple: no search would ever discover the person or ghost who had raised the flag of surrender. The September wind had pulled a white curtain out of a window left open when the occupants of the house sought shelter in the cellar, and blown it back and forth in front of the eyes of the Germans. The inhabitants of the city could finally be reassured that neither cowardice nor, worse, attempted treason had set this flag fluttering. Destiny itself in the form of the wind had done the necessary job.”

This reminded me strongly of the opening scene in Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, where Kundera recounts the anecdote of the photograph. In 1948, there is a photograph taken of the Czech Prime Minister, Klement Gottwald, standing on a balcony alongside foreign minister Vladimir Clementis, who has just taken off his hat and placed it on the Prime Minister’s head, to protect him from the cold wind. When Clementis is purged and executed in 1952, the State propaganda also “erases” from the photograph – all that remains of him is his hat on Gottwald’s head. Kundera uses this story as an illustration of forgetting, the central theme of his book.

The story of the white flag is also a story of forgetting, or – what comes to the same thing – the story of overwriting and erasure, and the creation of a new, perfect narrative that helps us forget the old, flawed one. And in both cases, the overwriting can never be complete. Just as the hat remains on Gottwald’s head, the white flag remains in Gijorkaster’s narrative of its surrender. Whatever stories we tell ourselves, something will always escape through the cracks.

Thinking of Kundera in a novel that was set in World War II seemed a little dissonant at first – until, reading on, I realised that the second half of the book is a savage, satirical critique of post-WW II Eastern European communism, placing it firmly in the Kundera tradition. Before that, however, is the description of the fateful dinner at Doctor Guremato’s house. Here, there were strong echoes of Sandor Marai’s Embers: two old friends dine together unexpectedly after many years, in an atmosphere tinged with nostalgia, melancholy and bitterness, with unanswered questions and no possibility of closure; with a dim grasping towards something already lost, whether it is personal loss, or national loss. In Kadare, of course, the stakes are much higher – one man is trying to convince the other not to kill a hundred human beings:

“Your country fired on me.”

“I answer for my own house, not the state.”

“It comes to the same.”

“It doesn’t come to the same. I’m not Albania, just as you’re not Germany, Fritz. We’re something else.” 

In another curious reminder of Kundera, this time of The Joke, these lines come back to haunt Doctor Guremato many years later, under the communists. I’m not Albania. We’re something else. This denial of community and nation is used to put Doctor Guremato on trial for crimes against the regime, as evidence of his participation in a vast Jewish conspiracy designed to topple communism. Under communism, of course, the merging of individual and community reaches its apotheosis; again, in lines strikingly reminiscent of Kundera, in particular, the eviscerating humour of Life is Elsewhere, Kadare’s narrator remarks at one point:

“… a senior cultural official complained that people were still singing songs of what might be called a private nature…” 

Before this comes to pass, however, we’re treated to a rather astonishing digression that might be right out of Swift or Rabelais: a few chapters on the “persecution of the city’s ladies.” There is a sudden transition from what, until now, has been a believable historical story, to that of a Quixotic allegorical world. The narrative breaks down, the tone changes, there is sudden disorientation. I must confess, this part of the novel passed me by entirely.

Just as abruptly as it begins, the playful surreality ends, and we’re back to reality – the new reality of postwar communist-ruled Albania. But this is no longer the world through Kundera’s eyes. It has become the much darker, grimmer world of Arthur Koestler and Danilo Kis: the world of interrogators and torture chambers, show trials and the savage twisting of narratives upon the torturer’s wheel. Doctor Guremato finds himself under the scanner because of his role on the day the Germans came to Gijorkaster; and as in Koestler and Kis, the goal of the interrogation is not to discover the “truth” (every last vestige of fact has already been extracted through torture and surveillance of others), but to force a confession and a repentance that strengthens the regime.

There is an inevitability about the ending. But what sets apart The Fall of the Stone City from the uncompromising bleakness of Darkness at Noon and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is that even here, Kadare is unable (or unwilling) to entirely drop his lyrical style, a style most unsuited to the events that he is describing:

“But then another morning would dawn, ashen and exhausted, to confirm the view that time is the last thing in this world that is capable of renewal.”


“At first it was hard to find anything to accuse them of but soon it became easy enough. Just as the world was swept with wind and rain, so it was burdened with guilt. A share could be allotted to the doctors with plenty left over for others.”

When I first came upon these sentences, I paused, halted, and then read them over, twice, thrice, even four times. And perversely, it is the beauty of the prose that grips you in a way that forces your mind off the darkness of its subject matter.

As I said in the beginning, this is a curious book. I put it down with a sense of incompleteness; there seemed to be a smorgasbord of styles, themes and ideas jostling for space, not always harmoniously. Perhaps this makes this a modernist novel par excellence. But for me, apart from the patches of vintage Kadare, passages that exude a rare, elusive beauty, the novel qua novel disappointed. For the first time.


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Filed under Albania, European Writing, Ismail Kadare

“Does the smell of coffee still promise mornings that haven’t come?”: Amjad Nasser’s Land of No Rain

“Does the extraordinary power of nostalgia exaggerate what was minor and erase the marginal, the peripheral, the accompanying symptoms, while preserving the stable essence, an elixir that might be of nostalgia’s own making, impervious to the ravages of time? Nostalgia, that disease or form of ignorance…”

Amjad Nasser’s Land of No Rain  is a thinly disguised allegory that could be set in just about any Middle-Eastern country (it’s meant to be Jordan, although it reminded me most powerfully of Egypt). Twenty years after he fled into exile for an attempt on the life of his nation’s military leader, Younis is finally allowed to return home. He comes back to a changed country. The military government, which had been fighting the leftists (of which his organisation was a part) in collusion with the Islamists, is now engaged in a battle against the Islamists (with many former leftists in government – definite shades of Egypt). The books that were once banned – the narrator was branded for possessing a copy of State and Revolution – are no longer a threat. Active State repression has been replaced by a creeping corporate-consumerism: “In a world where everything has been standardized, and individuality is the sole preserve of museums and antique shops.” His parents have died, his family has changed, and his first love is almost unrecognisable. There is much that Younis must confront.

Not just a changed homeland, though: Younis must also confront the burdens of memory and regret, the slow tempering and decay of his own once-idealistic revolutionary fervour, and above all else, the old, unchanged self that he had left behind (something Nasser accomplishes through a fascinating use of split narrative, but more on that anon). Land of No Rain, like most of the best Arabic literature that I’ve read over this past year, seamlessly weaves the personal and the political together. One cannot understand Younis’ lost love without understanding the political upheavals of his homeland, just as surely as politics opens a window into the darkness of his troubled self.

One of the most notable features of Land of No Rain (or at least, this translation) is the extremely rich and layered intertextual references, which put the book into constant conversation with so many others. There are references to T.S. Eliot and to Shakespeare. There is a sustained reference to Tayib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, and much else that I sensed, but failed to catch, with my limited familiarity with Arabic literature. The references are, as well, extremely apposite. Consider this one, describing the impact of a book:

” … words that boast, deceptively, that they are the epitome of life, while life, according to a writer who does not care to have his name mentioned, is somewhere else.”

The writer in question is Milan Kundera, and the book is Life is Elsewhere. That book, of course, is another indictment of youth, lyricism and revolution. Like Kundera, Nasser recognises the sheer power of words:

” A book can be poison, or a flower, or a heart that throbs when it stumbles upon someone who believes in it…  You thought you were the only person in the world created by the subdued language of the book, its limpid images, its muted rhythms, the evanescent quotidian worlds that it evoked.”

Yet unlike Kundera, and unlike Life is Elsewhere, Nasser’s denunciation of the idealistic, revolutionary youth, bred upon lyricism, is neither absolute nor unequivocal. Perhaps this is because of the fact that Nasser’s revolution never succeeded, and never had the chance to turn into the tyranny that Kundera’s Czechoslovakia had to endure. Throughout this book, there is a sense of lingering regret, tinged with just enough uncertainty to prevent it from blossoming into full-blown lamentation. It is almost as if Younis recognises that even if the revolution had succeeded, there is no guarantee that it would not – very swiftly – have gone sour. Consequently, he cannot even mourn for the past that is gone and the present that never was – all he can do is smile ruefully, and wonder about what might have been.

The past that is gone – themes of memory, remembrance and forgetting, and time and change, are ever present in Land of No Rain. Echoes of Proust sound throughout the darkling chambers of the book.  “Nostalgia amplifies things…” writes Younis, after his own madeline moment. “The memory preserves tastes and smells and images that are of its own making, or that are not as they were in reality.” How memory exists in, and is created and awakened by the senses, is a recurring motif: “… words have no smells or textures unless they have a reference in one’s memory.” As is the distinction between historic time – linear and chronological – and the time that exists only as an instrument of memory: “But the affairs of the heart, and maybe of memory, are not measured in days.”

Perhaps the most striking way in which Nasser deals with the themes of past and future, and love and loss, is through the split narrative. There is not one narrative self, but two: Younis is the young poet-revolutionary, but the exile is a different person altogether: he is Adham Jaber, living in a foreign land for twenty years, working for a Pan-Arab newspaper. The point of return marks a conversation between Adham and Younis – Adham, the present narrative self, and Younis, who has remained, as though in suspended animation, changeless and unchangeable, for the last twenty years. The two selves question, interrogate and talk to each other, constructing between them a complex, intertwined history, both personal and political, both of the man and of his country. Not all is revealed, of course, because as must be the case:

You preserved inside you areas shrouded in darkness that, with the passage of time, you surrounded with barbed wire.”

Perhaps partly because of this, and partly because of the political context, the book resists conclusions and judgments. It does not endorse the revolutionary idealism of Younis, but nor does it – or Adham – condemn it. Ultimately, all we are left with is an uncertain, undefinable sense of regret at all the loss that consumes its characters: loss of idealism, loss of love, loss of a country – but without any clear sense whether what was lost was worth having in the first place. And in the end, we are only left to say, along with Nasser:

“Time and words and emotions wrap around each other like the layout of that ancient city, or like some of your father’s calligraphic designs, which turns words into eternal riddles.”

(With this, I’m ending a fascinating year of reading Arab literature, which began with Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa. Writers such as Kanafani, Elias Khoury, Naguib Mahfouz, Tayib Salih, Hoda Barakat, Mourid Barghouti, Radwa Ashour – many introduced to me via the excellent Arabic Literature website – and all the rest have been wonderful, and at times, world-changing. I’ve been fortunate to have had access to two of the world’s greatest libraries, but that will soon no longer be the case. The next one year, perhaps, will be spent exploring Latin American literature beyond One Hundred Years of Solitude, rather more accessible in Indian bookshops.)


Filed under Amjad Nasser, Jordan, Middle-Eastern Writing