God’s Books: Interview with the Vampire

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God’s Books: Interview with the Vampire
Mohab Nasr, Ya rabb, a’tina kutuban linaqra’ (Please, God, give us books to read), Cairo: Al Ain, 2012

“Any pretence of having specific reasons to stop writing poetry at one point or to return to it at another will be a fabrication,” says Mohab Nasr (b. 1962). “All I can say for sure is that I was surrounded by friends who used up my energy in conversations, which gave me a sense of reassurance of a certain kind, the extent of whose hazardousness it took a long time to realise.”
Thus the seemingly eternal vicious circle, perhaps even more pronounced outside Cairo, the underground literary centre of operations—in Alexandria, where, after a stint in said centre in the mid-1990s that cost him his government schoolteaching post, Nasr was living again:
To write, you have to have a reader; but, being a serious poet in late 20th-century Egypt, your reader can only be a fellow writer; you might as well just talk with them at the cafe—and, beyond an inevitably skewed sense of personal fulfillment, what on earth in the end could be the point of that?
Prompted by his short-lived marriage to the feminist-Marxist activist, aspiring theorist and Student Movement icon Arwa Saleh (1951-1997), Nasr’s experience of Cairo had been more depressing than instructive. But, like the bite that makes a man immortal, freezes him in the age at which it happened and binds him to a routine of bloodsucking, spending the day in a tomb and surfacing only in the nighttime, the experience marked him; some 14 years later, when unprecedented protests broke out while he lived and worked as a cultural journalist in Kuwait, it would prove obliquely regenerative.
Cairo gave Nasr a direct taste of the wannabe aesthetician’s pretensions and the wannabe autocrat’s mean-spiritedness so rife among Generation of the Seventies activists and writers; it made him aware of the potentially fatal fragility of the Arab Intellectual—a creature as mythical and parasitic as a vampire, and perhaps ultimately as irrelevant to consensual reality, since its emergence in Muhammad Ali Pasha’s times.
It was in 1997 that Nasr’s first book of poems, Ann yassriq ta’irun ‘aynayk (or “For a bird to steal your eyes”), was published in a small edition in Alexandria: the year during which his divorcee, Saleh, finally killed herself.
They had not been in contact for months and he felt no guilt about the incident; he felt he had done all he could to be supportive, and anyway what drove her to suicide as he saw it, the inevitably failed attempt at literally embodying moral-political principles, had nothing to do with him. But the horror of what happened left him unsure not only about moral and political but also emotional and aesthetic issues.
Following the event, he started working on a long and involved text he still refers to as The Fragments, in which—without the arguably necessary theoretical equipment, as he readily admits—he tried to work out the meaning of life in the context of his experience. But, realising the result was too abstract to lead anywhere, he gave up.
The process was to be echoed far more recently—and perhaps also more meaningfully—in the wake of 25 January, 2011, when Nasr began responding to a Facebook comment by an old Muslim Brotherhood-sympathetic coworker who asked, “What if the Brotherhood comes to power?” It was as if the question unplugged a cache of latent energy:
“Instead of writing a few lines to him I found myself reviewing with him the entire history of the concept of the state and the decisive point separating two histories before and after the emergence of modernity and capital. I dealt with the rise of the notion of identity as more of a slogan than a truth; with the way the scaffolding of society had been taken apart; and with the resulting absence of society. It ended up as an incredibly long Facebook ‘note’, and I repeated the experiment with several other topics after that.”
Nasr had himself been a Muslim Brother once, however briefly, as an Arabic student at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Arts (he graduated in 1984); and it was not as if, by the time his Fragments took on such concrete form—for which he thanks the revolution—he had made no discoveries.
“When the writer creates an image to be attached to, they stand directly behind that image and lionise it as a ‘conviction’—a mask: when you remove it the writer goes away with it, vapourises. The real writer places their image at a distance, knowing that any image is a moment out of something fluid, a portion of existence in flux; and when they place it between the covers of a book, they are also placing it between two brackets of doubt…”
***
As is nearly always the case with poetry, it is next to impossible to say anything about the present book, apart from: “If you know Arabic, read it!” Mohab Nasr defines the poem very tentatively as a text that says something it never actually makes explicit, linking it to the cliche of knowing that someone is lonely when you notice how compulsively they chatter. After a hiatus that lasted over a decade, poems came back to Nasr like a reunion with a long lost friend, once he was out of Egypt. There was a sense of vertigo, he says: he was less confident than simply, shyly joyful; and he would send his texts to a select number of fellow writers to make sure they really were poems. The revolution, which would set off a parallel process of nonfiction writing, made his emotions raw and intense. Finally history was opening its door, he says, even if only monsters and dwarfs came through. It is interesting to note that, unlike much Generation of the Nineties poems to which it is linked, the present book makes absolutely no concessions to sensationalism: besides the fact that—prose as they remain—they are written to be read out loud, Nasr’s poems achieve the Nineties objectives of concentrating on immediate (physical) reality, drawing on day-to-day life and avoiding rhetoric precisely by avoiding direct and formulaic approaches to the New Poem. The language and images are extremely familiar, easy and recognisable; but they are just as extremely hard won.
***
“The life of an image in a book is the death of that image in reality. It is being free of the image’s limitations, of the illusion that an image however satisfying actually represents life.”
Thus the seemingly eternal life cycle of genuine or meaningful (literary) discourse, as opposed to the discourse of the Poet (the Arab Intellectual) who, precisely by placing himself above and beyond, manages effortlessly to be nonexistent as well—the echo of an echo of a lie:
To write, you have to have been a reader; you read what books life throws at you, but you also read the books of life itself—the people, the places, the things, the relations—as honestly, as sceptically, as unpretentiously as you can; then, when you tell someone else about what you have read, you contribute to an exchange that will somehow at some time actually shape a collective consciousness, a social state of being, life.
By 1999 Mohab Nasr will have met his present wife, the young short-story writer and fellow Arabic teacher Jehan Abdel-Azeez, with whom he settled down in Kuwait in 2007, three years after they were married. By then there had been a year of employment in Libya, and a difficult year of unemployment.
Kuwait seemed to open up a new space through both the slave-driven routine of having to produce a newspaper page every day and distance from Egyptian intellectual life, where the problem has less to do with a scene that puts pressure on or unsettles you than it does with one in which “the battle is lost from the beginning, even with yourself, because it is completely spurious”; he had felt he could only respond to that scene by letting it choke on its own lies.
“In the same way as writing in itself creates delusions, so too do opinions laid down easily during informal gatherings among writers,” he says in response to my questions, typing into his laptop in a seaside cafe back in Alexandria, a city he now visits only for holidays:
“They create delusions of belonging to a common, mutually comprehensible language… There is an extremely subtle difference between the writer creating images of consciousness as an interactive and critical medium and the writer creating those images with the intention of being attached to them as a person, of using them as a shield against society,” a tool for upward mobility, a sense of individual distinction, a lucrative link with the—political—powers that be, “not a way of relating to human beings at large.”
Prompted by this belief in a common ground, a multiparty dialogue, a welfare that eschews elitism without being populist, with Nasser Farghali, Hemeida Abdalla and the late Abdel-Azim Nagui, Nasr founded a literary group, Al Arbi’a’iyoun (or the Wednesdayers)—three issues of their eponymous journal were published in the early 1990s—and was later among the founders of the much longer-lived and by now well-known non-fiction journal, Amkenah, edited by Alaa Khalid.
In both cases his tendency towards excessive abstraction seems to have got in the way of a greater or longer-lived contribution on his part, but it was the increasingly dog-eat-dog conditions of life that drove people away from each other and dissipated the collective momentum (Amkenah charges ahead thanks to Khalid’s individual dedication).
Nasr’s nonfiction, an open-ended form of critique that can be seen as both amateur sociology-philosophy and political commentary-journalism, reveals a moralist eager to transcend morality, an aesthete well aware of the absurdity of art for art’s sake and an aspiring scholar with neither the patience nor the dispassion for scholarship; it reveals, in short, exactly the kind of man of letters whose scarcity has robbed the scene of vitality for decades, reducing the Role of the Intellectual to yet another empty slogan.
“I always suffered from this idea of abstraction as a writer, and even though I still believe in abstraction I feel it is necessary for live examples of the abstract concepts to be always present. This is what the revolution has done, or let’s call it the dissolution that facilitated such unprecedented human boiling over: the essential questions—even if they are extreme or naive or fallacious—have risen to the surface, come out (if temporarily), broken free of the hegemony of a cultural sphere that is dead and in shameful conspiracy with itself.”

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

***
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Please, God, give us books to read
by Mohab Nasr

Somehow
I was a teacher;
somehow
I considered that natural.
For this reason I began to bow
to words I did not say;
and to communicate my respects to my children.
I tried to make them understand that it was absolutely necessary
for someone to read,
to review with his parents—
while he hurls his shoe under the bed—
how exhausting and beautiful respect is:
that they have no future without words.
You yourself, Dad,
are bowed over the newspaper
as if a cloud is passing over you;
and when I call out to you,
I see your temple
stamped with melancholy,
as if it was raining specifically for your sake.
Read, Dad,
and call my mother too to read.
Let the cloud pass over all of us.
Please, God,
give us books to read:
books that smell of glue,
their pages like knives;
books
that cough out dust in our faces
so that we realise our life is a cemetery;
books
whose covers bear a dedication from the respected author
to the retired bureau director;
books
cleanshaven in preparation for being slapped
and others that howl
in the margins
at people who, like us, loved
and, like us, became teachers;
books in the form of Aloha shirts
at the Reading Festival;
books on whose giant trunks we can urinate
to unburden ourselves as we go on walking.
***

Aw, aw…
because we too are books, God,
flailing blind in our bed of love—
aw, aw—
because we are squeezed in on Your bookshelf
looking on Your miracles:
angels on the wall,
losing gamblers tearing up their bonds;
the despair of hands that strike
and hands that sleep, hurt, on the same pages.
Aw, aw…
Then someone screams: What goes on there?
***

The desks of the bosses arranged in the form of the Complete Works,
snakes and bears,
crosses and wall magazines,
disgust and rotting bread,
the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?
***

Lost with ideas on wheels,
lost at home
and on the streets,
unseen to You or ourselves,
alone before our bosses
who are also alone,
alone with the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?
***

Translation © Youssef Rakha

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Ahmad Yamani’s New Book: The Ten Commandments of Displacement

When Youssef Rakha asked the Madrid-based poet Ahmad Yamani how his latest book, Amakin Khati’ah (Wrong Places, Cairo: Dar Miret, 2009) came about, the latter sent him a numbered list of observations

1. All the poems of this diwan were written in Spain between 2002 and 2006.

More than other “Nineties” prose poets working in standard Arabic, Ahmad Yamani was accused of hartalah, contemporaneous slang for prattle or drivel. That was when he lived in Talbiyah, the semi-provincial suburb of the Pyramids where he was born in 1970. No one doubted his talent, but even the quasi-Beatniks of Cairo were not ready for the irreverent lack of polish in his first book, Shawari’ al-abyad wal-asswad (The Streets of Black and White, 1995), particularly clear in the long, epoch-making poem whose title translates to Air that stopped in front of the House.

Here at last, romantic and Kafkaesque by turns, was a rage-free Howl of Cairo in the post-Soviet era. The madness went on. By the turn of the millennium Yamani was as well-known as he could be. He was writing, he was working (mostly at cultural magazines), but like many others he was also fed up with life on the margin and disgusted with the social, economic and literary mainstream. One day in 2001, he left the country for good.

***

2. I did not show anybody and did not publish a single poem, because my idea was simply to test myself in a new place.

The ambition to start over makes sense despite Yamani’s success: Through a revolution waged in the ghetto – cf. the journals Al-Kitaba Al-Ukhra and Al-Garad – he had been among the few who survived the purges. In time his hartalah-streaked genius, demonstrated in two more books by 2001, looked more like what the revolution was about than almost any other work. The vernacular, the individual, the concrete: these were the basic components of a variegated “movement”, but Yamani seemed to embody them more literally. In a way he grabbed what everyone else was girdling. Hartalah or not, his work was gloriously prosaic.

Apart from tighter technical control of his material and a greater openness to drama and narrative, however, no major developments occurred in Yamani’s next two books (Tahta shajarat al-‘a’ilah, self published, 1998; and Wardat fi ar-ra’ss, Miret, 2001). The gifted strive to surpass themselves. Consciously or not, starting a new life must have seemed the perfect chance to re-enter the void. It took Yamani nearly five years to come back out with something to show for himself; and while he shed some qualities in the process, there were others he retained:

Unlike Yasser Abdel-Latif, for example – another survivor whose own debut, also self-published, emerged simultaneously from the same press as Shawari’ – in Amakin Khati’ah Yamani still does not construct his texts, he releases them. Here as in the previous three books, he avoids sentimentality not through restraint but by reinventing the words and their sense. He makes words say not necessarily what he means (he does not necessarily mean anything), but how he experiences their weight.

For a hard-up young man from the backwaters of Cairo, then, what does it mean to be in a new place – intent on poetic self examination?

***

3. My life in the new place was totally different from my life in Egypt, which was surrounded by intellectuals almost for its duration and where friends provided a sense of security.

Only very occasionally in this book does being in a new place mean noticing how foreignness plays out in ideational terms, but in the context of the Nineties the fact that it does at all is remarkable. In “Story of al-Jahidh”, for example (the title is an incidental reference to the great ninth-century author, who was black), the speaker not only describes but also seems to mull over instances of racism – by Nineties standards, an unthinkable concession to “ideology” – the catch-all term for anything which, preceding or external to individual consciousness, could potentially intervene in how it operates, altering or squeezing its contours.

Assess the poem as you will, explicit mention of racism is not something you would expect of Yamani.

Not that it is beyond him to think about such issues, but the Nineties work was conceived partly in reaction to both Sixties engagement and the Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said)-influenced obscurantism of the Seventies: the absurdity of writing about and for abstractions, whether the People, the Nation, or Modernism, Beauty, etc. Any suspicion of the poem championing either cause or concept, however ambiguously, would have been enough for the Tis’iniyyun (or “Ninetiers”) to set up the gallows. And in many ways Yamani was the least susceptible to temptation.

Perhaps out of mere habit, Ninetiers who are otherwise in awe of Amakin Khati’ah still object to the topicality that shows up on its pages. Could topicality nonetheless be one of the ways in which the end of revolution – immigration, in this case – had a liberating effect on the revolutionaries?

***

4. This sense of security ended totally in Spain. It was not a question of lack of access to my friends, which I had through e-mail or telephone; it was more about cutting yourself off from that security with awareness, even resolve. Besides, the practicalities of life led me into new interactions. Little by little while working as a guard or a barman, you learn to take off the writer’s plume, which you used to rely on in Egypt and which set you apart as someone special, especially in front of your family. Here it didn’t matter at all whether or not you were a writer.

With Abdel-Latif and a host of young Cairo-based poets from working to lower middle class backgrounds, Yamani had inherited a certain Rimbaud-like angst from a more or less small group of staunchly apolitical existentialists who, though were only slightly older, could claim a connection with the Seventies as well as the Nineties: the Alexandria-based Alaa Khalid, the late Osama El-Dainasouri and the Charles Bukowski-loving founder of Al-Garad, Ahmad Taha, for example. It was a complex legacy with disparate influences – Dada-Surrealism (notably through translations from the French by Bashir El-Sebai), Modernism, a range of vaguely Baudelairian non-Europeans from Nicanor Parra to Orhan Veli – and it reacted to and set itself apart from savants of the Seventies not only in their capacity as Marxist politicals and heroes of the 1977-79 Student Movement but, even more importantly, as the false prophets of a new sensibility.

This is the package Yamani presumably carries along in his suitcase. But in exile or the promised land, in the new place, it must seem less relevant by the minute. Here it does not matter how you feel about prose in contrast to (free) verse as a poetic medium; it does not matter whether you are tired of one zeitgeist dictating opinions and alliances, or whether you might be contributing to the emergence of another; it does not matter to what extent you see a Syrian poet’s programme for Arab modernity as meaningless in practice, or how you assess an increasingly pro-government Egyptian critic’s notion of enlightenment. Only the idea of being and then not being surrounded by “intellectuals”, I suspect, remains crucial:

Until he went to live abroad Yamani, who graduated from Cairo University in 1992, had functioned as part of an amorphous Group of literati (or at least one avant-garde wing thereof): normal enough procedure for a writer with any ambition in Egypt. To those who choose to define themselves in opposition to the status quo – the vast majority, in practice – that Group remains an essential element of literary production. By positioning itself outside or against the cultural (formerly also the political) establishment, since the 1970s at least, from its peripheral position the Group has often exercised greater power than the establishment.

For better or worse the Group is both the motor and the bane of the writer’s life: in the capacity of friends (an almost metaphysical affinity implying interpersonal rights but neither moral consistency nor critical rigour), fellow writers-critics cover up the hopelessness of social (including academic) and professional life, doubling as readers in the process. At the expense of a sense of isolation and instability (arguably conducive to the creative act), the reality of a society that has no need even for genre novels, let alone prose poetry, is neutralised or obscured.

In the new place, I imagine, the package itself begins to look context-specific, limited and limiting, or it takes on previously unsuspected meanings. As the Spanish language gradually lodges itself in the system, unrelated discoveries further complicate the picture. For a while, I imagine, the writer no longer knows how to write.

***

5. In my first year I wrote almost nothing. That was 2001. In 2002 I started writing again.

Here, titled “The Two Houses”, is a moving example of how distance can rarify and distill hartalah once the literary self reemerges isolated:

I wake in the same room to find my hand splashing the lake that lurks under the bed, to find the thick wall of my old house with its dusty window where a main wall of this apartment should be. I opened the window and the evening was still there. And my father was in the kitchen, his hand on the light switch and his leg which is missing five centimetres looking longer than the other, I called to him and he did not reply, he only smiled and invited me with gestures of his hand to go on sleeping. ‘The universe is a handkerchief’, they say here. Over there we say ‘Small world’. At night I go to my parents’ house, through the opening I made behind my new house. I stay there an hour or two to check on the family’s medicine, on my parents’ sleep and their breakfast. At dawn I set up my vehicle and go back again.

The sheer lucidity suggests that “loss of security” does clear up a certain amount of non-poetic debris. Throughout Amakin Khati’ah the tone remains as offhand and the references as private (indeed often as murky) as ever, but the poet’s vision of the world and his place in it seems to have brightened or expanded. Suddenly, his work feels more relevant to more people.

So much that in an exquisitely dreamlike poem about a young man immigrating when the horizon at home begins to look like a dead end, “The Big Escape”, poetry comes close to allegory. And without a whiff of the sociopolitical or the “ideologoical”, neither strays very far from the clearly grounded situation it depicts:

They had sentenced me to execution with two of my friends and it was by what they called euthanasia which had already killed a fourth friend of ours. We did not understand very well what they meant by these statements and so they left us free without guards or cells and sentenced us instead to a kind of death they called a mercy killing which is carried out by a middle aged lady who has a benign face and which is painless but is death anyway. I consulted with my mother and my friends a little while before the execution and I decided to escape. They all agreed I should go while my two friends remained to wait for the lady. As soon as I went out after they gave me all the money they had I met with the merciful lady face to face next to my home. Neither of us looked at the other. She avoided me and went off and I went past her and started to run looking over my shoulder in other countries.

***

6. When I went back to writing, I wanted to see myself as a poet in isolation from any possible influences. I stopped publishing totally.

For which read, equally, “I stopped having a seat at the cafe in downtown Cairo.” Divested of that position, the writer begins to see his work in the limitless space of what is human as opposed to what is intellectual (or Egyptian), confronting the fact that poetry can only exist in a marginal place far more directly. He might even begin to question the safety that comes of belonging, however tangentially.

In Yamani’s case, I think, that journey has been overwhelmingly positive – partly because the resulting changes meddle with neither content nor style. There is a heightened sense of geography and multiplicity (in the cultural as well as the physical sense); the poet’s inherent, often laugh-out-loud sense of irony responds to a broader range of stimuli; far from the fluid vitality of Shawari’, his modus operandi reflects meticulous reworking of the short piece: a process through which the rawness of the writing nonetheless emerges intact. But here as in older work, subject matter is by and large distorted beyond recognition, language remains informal and corporeal, some sense of hartalah persists.

What is brand new is the vision: the ability to transform one act into another in the impossibly beautiful two-line poem “Tobacco Seller”, for example: “Her hand is on the box, my foot outside the house. Suddenly it grows dark, while she continues rubbing the tobacco on her shiny thigh./She stops a little to move half the tobacco to her other thigh, while I enter the tunnel and start smoking.”

References so private and concealed they are a hair’s breadth away from being meaningless (El-Dainasouri, for example, figures only as “Osama”, without any indication of who he might be) take on the power of electromagnetic signals: an object, a person becomes one of several points around which a field of gravity extends, shaped as much as anything by the distance between Talbiyah and Madrid.

***

7. I wrote slowly, with a sort of private enjoyment, without any plan to publish a book and without any concern with whether or not I was writing. It seems I wanted to free myself from Writing itself.

At the most basic level displacement has given Yamani’s prosaicness a fresh subtlety. Transported to a context the writer cannot take for granted, as in “The Funeral”, insights that are personal and elusively formulated enough to come across as enigmatic suddenly look breezy, universal and accessible: “Chimo is not my friend. But he died… and here I am no longer a stranger in these lands.”

In “The Book”, about the illiterate mother of a published author, this sense of writing in isolation from Writing, the slowness of rediscovering an intimate process, turns a more or less obvious homesickness into something far more interesting (in folk belief, the number five affords protection against the evil eye):

How can she not

read what I write

How come she waits by the door

until someone passing

gives her a few words

those strange obscure words

Yet she listens and smiles

as if she was there with me

at five in the morning

as if her hand

relocated some of the words

moved them from the wrong places

moved them and went to sleep

But how can she not

read what her own hands inscribed only yesterday

How come she cannot open the balcony

in the morning

to receive the sun

with a copy of the book in her left hand

that she reads slowly

winking at the neighbours

pointing to her son the wordsmith

waving the book in their faces

five times

while she mutters

strange and obscure words.

But it is not only a matter of context: displaced, the writer cannot take himself for granted; and not only because he can no longer designate himself a plume-wearing intellectual. In this sense the stage Yamani refers to as “loss of security” might be rephrased “loss of identity”. And indeed counterbalancing a new confidence, a kind of facility in Yamani’s poetic persona following his initial season in hell and the transformations it led to – a confidence just as evident in his real-life persona, as I recently found out – there is a sense of dislocation:

While topical notions of identity never go further than a more or less passing, very subtle remark on the “I” as exotic sex partner (in “My Clothes”), the eye of the poet is, to a far greater extent than in the previous books, unhinged and in motion, in search of its ever elusive socket in the his own transmuting face. It does not seem ludicrous to suggest that this is the deeper quest, as desperate as it is doomed, of the globalised soul seeking salvation in post-post-God times.

Like few other books Amakin Khati’ah presents the world as a place defined by a sort of earthly transmigration, people becoming other people through movement in space, vulnerable egos in intercontinental flux. And it is to Yamani’s credit that, unlike many Arab writers, without once resorting to a self-definition that might help him to do so, he communicates a persuasive sense of being in the contemporary world.

***

8. The strange thing is that some people saw my not writing as a sign of bankruptcy and decided that what I had already published was the end of my writing career. This made me laugh even as it saddened me. But it was a passing sadness.

Such is the ugly face of the Group or its avant-garde wing, whether or not that has really managed to set itself apart from the Seventies – the subject enacting or being made to enact ridiculously melodramatised glories and downfalls for the benefit of the rest of the crew, turning into Hero, Victim or (in the broadest range of senses, including the literary) Suicide – but however passing the sadness such sickness inspired in Yamani, it is just as well he was made aware of it, the better to appreciate the significance of the new place. Perhaps we would not have known about Yamani if not for the Group; what we should be thankful for is that he has endured in spite of it.

Immigration, as it seems, is remedy enough. The friends remain friends but in a far less proscriptive way. It is possible to relate to the family – part of the hopelessness of the society surrounding an impenetrable circle – in a more open and sympathetic way. It is possible to see the meaning and value of others as others, not equally restricted versions of the self who may also have made the difficult choice of becoming “intellectuals” or of joining the group. A certain amount of open-ended understanding accumulates. The world becomes a handkerchief as well as being small.

***

9. I did not even think of publishing the book once it was completed. It was Yasser Abdel-Latif and Mohammad Hashim who drove me to do it.

Mohammad Hashim is the writer who, by founding Dar Miret in 1999, absorbed much of the energy of the Nineties and eventually became better-known as the most accomplished independent publisher in the city (the moon of his success has since waned somewhat). And the easy way to interpret what Yamani has to say about the publication of this book is to think of it as (false) modesty. He is shy about the genius that drives him.

It could also be a sign of despair of ever having a significant readership, reflecting what I feel is a healthy awareness of the position of the contemporary Arab writer in the grander scheme of things. While others go crazy over literary prizes or the prospect of being translated – publication being among the easiest tasks facing a writer in Cairo, it is never enough in itself – here is a glowing talent who, expecting neither fame nor fortune, has little or no drive to publish in the first place. Ambitious he might be, but he is silent. There is dignity in that position: an artisan’s deep respect for his noble handiwork regardless of market demand.

Alternatively, however, the statement could be interpreted as a salutary affirmation of the fact that true writers write foremost for themselves, to work through their own sense of being. In this sense Amakin Khati’ah might be read as a journal of expatriation, an inner chronicle of what it means, for a hard-up young man from the backwaters of Cairo, to live away from home.

It means that he is still hard-up, that he teaches and translates to make a living: probably factors in the development of his approach to language and meaning. It means that he has become an academic (the only career open to an immigrant educated in the humanities?) and that it is an opportunity for him to set up theoretical grounding for the literary form in which he found himself (the prose poem), and to locate his work in a wide historical context. It also means that he can write free from compulsion, free from the need to establish ultimately prohibitive social or existential credentials; maybe it even means that he has something to write about, too.

***

10. With rare intelligence, Mohab Nassr, in a letter to me after reading the manuscript, caught the idea that this was my first book. I feel the same way: the first book in a second life.

It is interesting that, of all those who commented on the manuscript, Yamani should cite Mohab Nassr: the one Nineties poet (of Khaled and El-Dainasouri’s generation) who, largely out of repulsion from the Group, its capacity for ruining lives and its failure to see itself as part of the society surrounding it, actually stopped writing altogether. After settling down as a journalist in Kuwait – he had worked as a school teacher in Alexandria – Nassr has only just returned to writing.

It is interesting because Nassr, not only by no longer writing poetry but by socially distancing himself from the Cairo-centred literary circles, is able to see better than others just how far since Wardat fi ar-ra’ss Yamani has come. It is also interesting because, without discrediting Yamani’s three previous books, Nassr is implying that Yamani did not start writing until he had departed, until he was totally free of his Egyptian-intellectual self.

It is interesting too that the poet joyfully agrees – not with any of the implications, necessarily, but with the fact that he has experienced a literary rebirth – adding only the qualification of this being a second life. It means that when he writes, in “Work”, “Any ghost who appears to me will instantly become my friend”, he knows exactly what he is talking about.

“The Two Houses”, “The Big Escape”, “Tobacco Seller” and “The Book” translations copyright: Youssef Rakha

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Marathon man: It never occurs to you, reading Murakami’s novels, that his characters look Japanese. Courtesy Rex Features

In his new memoir, Haruki Murakami reflects on life as a ‘running novelist’ and ponders the meaning of a marathon. Youssef Rakha logs his discontent with the great storyteller’s descent into pop wisdom.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Haruki Murakami
Translated by Philip Gabriel
Harvill Secker
Dh67

Aug 18, Dubai — Day 1

Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (translated into English by Philip Gabriel), is the only book I have with me on my tour of the Emirates, and so far I am not gripped by it. For the first time since I discovered Murakami, it looks like I will not be enjoying one of his books.

The stated focus of What I Talk About is Murakami’s life as a writer, a runner, a runner who writes and a writer who runs – not inherently boring topics. But however much Murakami labours to present himself in an everyday, informal register, to “just write honestly about what I think and feel about running”, the fact that he is a famous, best-selling novelist remains paramount; everything in the book tells me I am to be interested in his thoughts on life and productivity not for their own sake, but because they have been issued by Haruki Murakami, Famous Author. This will clearly undermine identification.

Even worse, I cannot help fearing that Murakami himself will end up exemplifying a disturbing notion often expressed by the writers in his novels: that, in an “advanced capitalist society” like Japan, producing copy for publication is as ingloriously Sisyphean as an “shovelling snow”.

Aug 19, Ras al Khaimah – Day 2

“Writers should be read,” wrote Daphne du Maurier, “but neither seen nor heard.” As I predicted, I find it hard to appreciate Murakami when he speaks in his own voice. Having declared himself a professional novelist, my favourite shoveller stops producing the (Raymond) Carver Effect (That’s it exactly! And exactly as I might’ve written it myself!).

As Carver himself put it: “Anyone can express himself, or herself, but what writers and poets want to do in their work, more than simply express themselves, is communicate.” And surely this means shedding your professional writerly persona (if you have one) – forgetting for a while whatever status you have acquired since you were young. But in What I Talk About, Murakami remains too conscious of his success to achieve the necessary and expected intimacy.

He takes care to distinguish himself from “legendary figures” like Shakespeare, Dickens and Balzac – whom he takes to have been so prodigiously talented that questions of routine, discipline, running and so on are irrelevant (this is absurd, but a topic for another essay). Instead, he counts himself among “the remaining majority of writers”, the “many who write for a living”. Here he forgets not his own status, but the fact that literary success remains fickle. He forgets that a writer might be talented, work hard, produce good work and still, for arbitrary or circumstantial reasons, not sell – or even be noticed at all. In mental and physical spheres where commercial English-language publishing does not exist, members of the real “remaining majority” of writers live and die with neither access to nor desire for a global market. They write to write, and make their money otherwise. Where does the author of a memoir predestined to sell across the world, no matter how bad it is, get the nerve to speak for them, even indirectly?

Aug 21, Ras al Khaimah – Day 4

Had What I Talk About been an efficient Murakami novel, it probably would have started 27 superfluous pages later than it actually does, and it would go something like this: at exactly 1:30pm on April 1, 1978, while watching a baseball game and sipping beer at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, the young owner-manager of a hip new jazz club was gripped by the sudden urge to write a novel. Over the next few months, working for one hour each night, he wrote his first short novel, Hear The Wind Sing. In 1979, it was published in Japan’s most influential literary magazine. The young man decided to sell his thriving club, move out of Tokyo with his wife and adopt an efficient routine: to get serious about writing. He stopped smoking, took up running and in due course started pounding out phenomenal full-length novels.

Murakami takes running to be the magic ingredient in all this. Chapter Two, Tips on Becoming a Running Novelist, ends on this hyperbolically epic note: “Thirty-three – that’s how old I was then. Still young enough, though no longer a young man. The age that Jesus Christ died. The age that Scott Fitzgerald started to go downhill. That age may be a kind of crossroads in life. That was the age when I began my life as a runner, and it was my belated, but real, starting point as a novelist.”
But since this is not an efficient Murakami novel, it goes on. Convinced that his running and writing are so essentially linked that any information about the former will illuminate the latter, Murakami proceeds to essentially share his training logs for marathons, ultra-marathons and triathlons. He observes a bit, reminisces a lot and reveals little. He writes around running, not about it.

Aug 22, Ajman – Day 5

Four chapters in, I am struggling to place What I Talk About in Murakami’s oeuvre.
Platonically speaking, there are two Murakami books. Book A – which occurs in its purest real-world form in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World) – is an exercise in universe construction, an otherworldly cerebral puzzle with brilliant dramatisations of complex, abstract intellectual premises. It is off-putting to hear the author of Book A write with overbearingly false modesty, as he does now, “I’m not the brightest person” and “I’m a physical, not intellectual type of person.”
Platonic Murakami Book B – Norwegian Wood being the closest thing – has more to do with character and coming-of age, and is full of references to pop culture. Book B produces the Carver Effect in spades, particularly for young people.

Big, complicated but readable Murakami books like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore and the distich of A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance work by combining the immediate psychological appeal of Book B with Book A’s supernatural /philosophical underpinnings. So do smaller works like South of the Border, West of the Sun and Sputnik Sweetheart. Even Underground, Murakami’s account of the 1995 gas attacks on Tokyo’s subway system, has its magical elements.
What I Talk About is the first Murakami book that bears no traces of Book A. In this sense, it prompts questions about whether or not it is really (as many commentators assume) the Carveresque readability of Murakami’s novels that make them so compelling. Without at least a bit of the deep wacky stuff, it seems, my friend Haruki just doesn’t work.

Aug 24, Abu Dhabi – Day 8

Now that I have finished What I Talk About, I realise that its entire message is simply stated by the title of its fourth chapter: Most of What I Know About Writing Fiction I’ve Learned From Running Every Day.
Murakami elaborates on that message with the kind of platitudinous pop wisdom that perennially inspires young would-be writers: “To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm”, etc. But the is either unable or too complacent to articulate the connection between long-distance running and novel writing. “I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist,” he writes, “my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would have definitely been different.” Maybe it is this failure that makes the book most disappointing.
“Easy reading is damned hard writing,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne. Reversing that logic: for the first time since we met, my good friend Haruki seems to have done some damned easy writing.

Sept 1, Abu Dhabi – Day 16

Leafing back through What I Talk About, I am struck by how American it is. Not that you expect anything particularly Japanese from Murakami. It never even occurs to you, reading his novels, that his characters look Japanese. Nor do you find serious evidence of Japan’s fawning embrace of its erstwhile conqueror’s culture. Sure, Colonel Saunders appears in the flesh in Kafka on the Shore, but that does not undermine or seem out of place with the novel’s engagement with Shintoism. Norwegian Wood may be named after a Beatles song, but it still tells a culturally rooted story of love and loss against the backdrop of Japan’s 1960s student movement.
Murakami’s novels transcend cultural barriers not so much because they are acultural, but because they evoke a sort of universal openness: to the imaginary, the uncanny, the implausible, the out-of-place, the curious – to everything, as long as it is compelling, as long as it works. These are the origins of the Sheep Man of Dance Dance Dance, who plays the music of destiny on a switchboard in an extraterrestrial hotel room; and Toru Okada, the Wind-Up man, sitting quietly in a dry, abandoned well near his house in suburban Tokyo, looking for his lost cat …
What I Talk About leaves us with a different, banal image: a man in his fifties jogging every morning through Cambridge, Massachusetts with Brian Adams’s 18 ‘Til I Die playing through his earphones. It is fine to be that man. But to build a memoir around that image, some attendant facts about muscle pain and training regimens and a sprinkling of gnomic wisdom is not open: it is narrow, a tunnel of suburban triteness.
Writing is a tricky business. It takes talent, focus and endurance – the three qualities Murakami lists, in that order, as necessary for his “manual labour” of completing novels. And it is interesting to hear that (albeit not much about how) running has helped him with the last two of those elements. But writing novels – at least novels like Murakami’s – also takes a sort of subversion: a willingness to obsess over feelings and images ignored by most people in their everyday lives. In his eagerness to underline the importance of discipline and good health to his success, Murakami overlooks this. It’s a shame: surely all that running – all that solitary, self-inflicted pain, itself practice for more of the same – can tell us something interesting about where Murakami is writing from. But he has little to say on this subject.

So why must he upset me now with this otiose memoir, a book that will remain marginal to his achievement? Perhaps Murakami is, for whatever reason, desperate to convince himself that writing is just a job like any other. Perhaps he is just writing honestly, or trying to. But everybody knows that writing honestly is not the same as writing well. Putting away this little hardback, I know I will never pick it up again. I can only compare reading it with Murakami’s own experience of finishing a marathon in less-than-satisfactory time: “I guess I should be proud of what I’ve done, but right now I don’t care. What makes me happy right now is knowing that I don’t have to run another step, Whew! – I don’t have to run anymore.”