The Quixote Code
Remembering Borges, Youssef Rakha courts sedition
He did not want to compose another Quixote – which is easy – but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original… – Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
As a literary exercise – or novel – to imagine a diary composed 1,500 years ago: what could be more challenging to a contemporary writer? Few would think to accomplish the task as literally as Pierre Menard, the author imagined by Jorge Luis Borges in his first short story, who rewrites Cervantes’ Don Quixote, word for word, without ever reading it. An author about to produce a 1,500-year-old fictional diary would certainly affirm the kind of human connection that makes characters in books interesting regardless of when the books were written and when the characters lived, but they might also be curious as to how different the world was so long ago, and the ways in which its difference necessarily affected the people they deal with. In the fifth century, for example, the earth was still flat, there was no such thing as penicillin, demons (whether Christian or pagan) had far more physical presence, and slavery was the norm.
But for Youssef Zeidan, author of the year’s most talked-about Arabic novel, Azazeel (or Beezlebub: winner of the 2009 Arabic Booker, upsetter of the Coptic Orthodox Church and, in Arabic-translation-of-Syriac-diary format, resuscitator of the fifth-century Levant), none of these things or the myriad others that separate us from medieval times have any part to play in the action or in thought processes of the characters. Zeidan treats the time gap simply as a technical obstacle, which he overcomes through the device of impersonating the present-day translator, into modern Arabic, of a fictional manuscript. This works for a while – even though at many points, Zeidan’s modern world view seems to burst out of the veneer of the manuscript – but eventually you realise that there is little if any engagement with the otherness or mystery of the past. The author makes no attempt to demonstrate the difference in people’s experience of time, in their sense of authority, in their capacity for spiritual transcendence or thier greater tolerance for bloodshed, sectarian bias, or material hardship. It is almost as if Zeidan is writing generic fiction, the early Christian setting no more than one among many possible palettes to paint the same, atemporal picture.
Still, Azazeel makes a compelling read, which is more than can be said for most Arabic novels published today; then again, generic fiction is by definition compelling. What sets Azazeel apart, in addition to the convincing impression Zeidan gives of an edited manuscript in translation, is the historical accuracy of the major events he covers and the accessible way in which he charts, in outline, the Christological debate between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople, the latter condemned at the Council of Ephesus in AD 451. Not far into the book, however, Zeidan’s engagement with the universe he depicts begins to feel skin deep. Hipa, the protagonist, is less and less convincing – especially as regards his interactions with the Beezlebub of the title: an all-too-innocuous devil whose medieval identity, presumably different from that of the better known Satan or his Muslim cousin, Iblis, does not come through.
Hipa is a Coptic monk doctor who, on leaving Alexandria as it were in a huff, decides to take this name out of guilt over failing to stop (or indeed object to) the massacre by his fellow Christians of the Pagan philosopher Hipatia of Alexandria (AD 355-416), whom he admires – an event for which Zeidan blames Cyril I and which Hipa helplessly witnesses before he leaves the Alexandrine Church of Saint Mark monastery, travelling first to Jerusalem, where he meets an even less lifelike apparition of Cyril I’s archenemy, Nestorius and, on the advice of the latter, moves onto the minor monastery in which he composes this diary in his third language – after Coptic and Greek – north west of Aleppo on the way to Antioch. When you wind down and reflect after turning the last page, you feel Hipa might as well have been a present-day Muslim medical student at the Qasr El-Eini university hospital who, repelled by secular corruption and/or fundamentalist excess, decides (against the dictates of Islam) to live the life of a recluse treating men of religion at an out-of-the-way mosque clinic somewhere in northern Syria; so indistinct are the ancient dimensions of Hipa’s constitution, both material and mental – and so disinterested Zeidan in them.
It is in this context that you are tempted to ask why Zeidan, an Islamic studies scholar and a Muslim, apparently a believer, should choose to express his views on religious tolerance in the framework of the pre-Islamic past. The motivation behind Azazeel seems to have little to do with the world in which this precursor of Satan’s existed; and while the book testifies to immersion in texts and ideas of the period, it does not demonstrate a deep interest in the daily life of its people on the part of Zeidan (at least not to this reader). The motif of Christian brutality towards non-Christians – by far the most recurrent – can be read as a general statement on sectarianism (applicable, even, to Muslims); but why side so wholeheartedly with the one man the entire Eastern Orthodox world considers a heretic? Cyril I (a saint to Zeidan’s former friends at the Coptic Church of Mar Murqus, where Hipa supposedly lived so many centuries ago) may well have been capable of violence and dogmatism, but other than his being the underdog in the relentless march of history, there is no reason to believe that Nestorius, whether or not one agrees with his views, did not have it in him to commit the same crimes. The one line of thought that could justify Zeidan’s bias is the fact that the Muslim account of Jesus’ nature is significantly closer to the Nestorian.
Could it be that Zeidan is making a very roundabout statement about Islam’s theological difference with the Coptic Orthodox Church? Surely, then, in the Egyptian context, he is neither siding with the underdog nor – as the Booker jurors claimed he was – promoting tolerance. Perhaps the ultimate book of this learned and readable book is no greater than mud raking, after all.
The Quixote Code