Sunday, May 5, 2013

"I am a Communist first, a writer after that."

The Committee by Somallah Ibrahim

"Anything that takes us beyond the limits of the conventional novel, now exhausted, is worth doing...."

Writing political fiction tests the limits of a writer's abilities--it is difficult to balance the artfulness of a story with a passionate ideological conviction because the political overshadows the personal in just the way that history mocks our individual hopes and ambitions.  Writers of thrillers make their living by crushing human beings under the weight of events they cannot control--Robert Ludlum's books provide an example--creating stories that focus on their characters' lack of agency and substituting paranoia for any of the deeper emotions that make fiction a source of insight into human lives.  Many political novels allow preaching to overwhelm even the rudimentary conventions of literary art: Atlas Shrugged is the best/worst example (full disclosure: I only managed 250 pages) or Sartre's Les chemins de la liberté trilogy (ditto). Even a gifted writer like Richard Wright can fall into the trap (in Native Son) of allowing the political message to overwhelm his art.  Then there are the well-known dystopias of Huxley, Orwell, or Bulgakov--where the subtleties of fiction are sacrificed to the exploration (and demolition) of a set of political ideas.  And finally there are the many great political novels: The Grapes of Wrath (which I've just been rereading) comes to mind at once, and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, Malraux's Man's Fate,  Penn Warren's All the King's Men, and the novels by writers who have endured Western colonialism--Achebe, Mahfouz, Thiong'o--the list is long and distinguished and everyone will have his or her own favorites.  So: it can be done--novels can convey political ideas forcefully--but navigating the space between art and politics is a difficult one that tests a writer's talent and creativity.

Sonallah Ibrahim's That Smell, self-published in Cairo in 1966, represented a turning point in Egyptian fiction.  This semi-autobiographical novel relates the shock and sorrow encountered by a nameless character (certainly the author himself), just released from prison, as he attempts to re- adapt to ordinary life. That Smell is a raw, unflinching account of alienation and despair; Ibrahim himself spent five years in prison for his communist views, and in his prison notebooks* writes, among other things, of his desire to create fiction that will be capable of transforming Egyptian society: "Can I unify the personal and the objective [the political] in my writing?"  To create this unity has been Ibrahim's artistic task, and the difficulties he encountered are on full display in The Committee, published in Arabic in 1981 (as Al-Lajnah) and in English in 2001.

Critics have compared The Committee to the writings of Kafka, or called the book "Kafkaesque," but I can't agree with this comparison.  Kafka is funny; Ibrahim is anything but--indeed, the deadly seriousness of this slender novel reflects the author's desire to add what Hemingway thought of as the "fourth dimension" to fiction--the [politically] symbolic.  The Committee of the novel is the unfeeling and irrational representative of the West, of capitalism, of the colonial oppression of Arabs.  Their manipulation of the narrator feels like the sort of manipulation one finds in a Ludlum novel--a sinister and evil force that compels the hero (a 'man without qualities' or without memory) to take some unspecified actions to save himself from a fate that is unclear and, as in any irrational world, undeserved. 

But Kafka's heroes aren't political victims; they suffer from the "existential plight of modern man" (sounds like an undergraduate term-paper title!), not from a political system but from life itself.  Kafka isn't an ideological writer; his subject is the human condition, not political oppression, but the oppressiveness of life itself--which is what makes a book like The Castle so witty; there is no redemption possible in Kafka's fiction, and the forces of absurdity are allied against all of us--permanently. What could be funnier than hopelessness?

In Ibrahim's novel, The Committee demands an interview with an unnamed Egyptian. We can infer that he is well-educated, multi-lingual, possibly a political dissident.  He is to be "examined"--in all senses of the term.  The large, impersonal Committee then assigns the examinee an ambiguous task--to research the life of the most "illustrious" figure in the Arab world.  After some speculation and many dead ends the narrator (whose style of speech and thought is, to put it mildly, laconic) decides to research "the Doctor," an Egyptian Proteus who appears as both benefactor and exploiter of his countrymen, a Machiavellian capitalist and benign socialist, a humanitarian and a ruthless oppressor.  In other words, as the West itself--England for most of Egypt's history, but also France and, in recent decades, the U.S. The narrator discovers in snippets of the popular press, including American celebrity magazines, that the Doctor is not only the most important figure in the Middle East, he is also the unique catalyst for the social and political changes roiling the Arab world.  Everything, in the narrator's view, is connected, and as a Marxist Ibrahim makes a case for the truth of this claim in long speeches to the Committee.  However, the Doctor was not the answer to the Committee's riddle, not, apparently, the luminary and center of political gravity the narrator believed him to be, and, driven to desperation, the narrator commits murder and is condemned to the worst punishment meted out by the Committee--a punishment that makes Kafka's Harrow look like a stroll along the Nile. 

What to make of this odd little book?  I was engrossed by the first fifty pages, then puzzled by the long discourse on Coca-Cola--not by the politics of the narrator's monologues, with which I am in agreement, but on the way in which Ibrahim hoped they would serve the story.  The denouement of The Committee appears implausible--too self-destructive to be believable, but then we know so little about the narrator that motivation isn't a consideration.  The last fifty pages have the quality of a sermon or a political speech and appear to throw over the conventions of story-telling altogether.  Perhaps it is wrong to believe that art can transcend politics--this was not, after all, the view of Marx--but, nonetheless, I believe it.  Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, in particular its third volume, Sugar Street, also makes the case for a leftist interpretation of Egyptian history, but in a far more subtle and persuasive way.

Sunallah Ibrahim was born in Cairo in 1937 and studied Law at Cairo University. He joined the Marxist Democratic Movement for National Liberation while there; during Nasser's crackdown on leftists in the 1950's Ibrahim was arrested and spent the years from 1959-1964 in prison. 

Syracuse University Press has an outstanding list of Middle Eastern fiction, plays and poetry.
The Committee was translated by Mary St. Germain and Charlene Constable with an afterword by Roger Allen.
* for a selection of Ibrahim's notes from prison.

George Ovitt (5/5/13)

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