REFUGEE: A man leaves, embarks on a journey, endures inhumane difficulties in search of a humane haven. There is a war going on where he comes from; it’s not safe even to walk to the vegetable souk. Abducted by one armed group, an ambulance driver he knows is forced to make a fake confession on video for the benefit of satellite news channels, then sold to another armed group—and so on. Continue reading
William S. Burroughs
When I lived in Mexico City at the end of the 1940s, it was a city of one million people, with clear sparkling air and the sky that special shade of blue that goes so well with circling vultures, blood and sand–the raw menacing pitiless Mexican blue. I liked Mexico City from the first day of my first visit there. In 1949, it was a cheap place to live, with a large foreign colony, fabulous whorehouses and restaurants, cockfights and bullfights, and every conceivable diversion. A single man could live well there for two dollars a day. My New Orleans case for heroin and marijuana possession looked so unpromising that I decided not to show up for the court date, and I rented an apartment in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City.
I knew that under the statute of limitations I could not return to the United States for five years, so I applied for Mexican citizenship and enrolled in some courses in Mayan and Mexican archaeology at Mexico City College. The G.I. Bill paid for my books and tuition, and a seventy-five-dollar-per-month living allowance. I thought I might go into farming, or perhaps open a bar on the American border.
The City appealed to me. The slum areas compared favorably with anything in Asia for sheer filth and poverty. People would shit all over the street, then lie down and sleep in it with the flies crawling in and out of their mouths. Entrepreneurs, not infrequently lepers, built fires on street corners and cooked up hideous, stinking, nameless messes of food, which they dispensed to passersby. Drunks slept right on the sidewalks of the main drag, and no cops bothered them. It seemed to me that everyone in Mexico had mastered the art of minding his own business. If a man wanted to wear a monocle or carry a cane, he did not hesitate to do it, and no one gave him a second glance. Boys and young men walked down the street arm in arm and no one paid them any mind. It wasn’t that people didn’t care what others thought; it simply would not occur to a Mexican to expect criticism from a stranger, nor to criticize the behavior of others.
Mexico was basically an Oriental culture that reflected two thousand years of disease and poverty and degradation and stupidity and slavery and brutality and psychic and physical terrorism. It was sinister and gloomy and chaotic, with the special chaos of a dream. No Mexican really knew any other Mexican, and when a Mexican killed someone (which happened often), it was usually his best friend. Anyone who felt like it carried a gun, and I read of several occasions where drunken cops, shooting at the habitués of a bar, were themselves shot by armed civilians. As authority figures, Mexican cops ranked with streetcar conductors.
All officials were corruptible, income tax was very low, and medical treatment was extremely reasonable, because the doctors advertised and cut their prices. You could get a clap cured for $2.40, or buy the penicillin and shoot it yourself. There were no regulations curtailing self-medication, and needles and syringes could be bought anywhere. This was in the time of Alemá¡n, when the mordida was king, and a pyramid of bribes reached from the cop on the beat up to the Presidente. Mexico City was also the murder capital of the world, with the highest per-capita homicide rate. I remember newspaper stories every day, like these:
A campesino is in from the country, waiting for a bus: linen pants, sandals made from a tire, a wide sombrero, a machete at his belt. Another man is also waiting, dressed in a suit, looking at his wrist watch, muttering angrily. The campesino whips out his machete and cuts the man’s head clean off. He later told police: “He was giving me looks muy feo and finally I could not contain myself.” Obviously the man was annoyed because the bus was late, and was looking down the road for the bus, when the campesino misinterpreted his action, and the next thing a head rolls in the gutter, grimacing horribly and showing gold teeth.
Two campesinos are sitting disconsolate by the roadside. They have no money for breakfast. But look: a boy leading several goats. One campesino picks up a rock and bashes the boy’s brains out. They take the goats to the nearest village and sell them. They are eating breakfast when they are apprehended by the police.
A man lives in a little house. A stranger asks him how to find the road for Ayahuasca. “Ah, this way, señor.” He is leading the man around and around: “The road is right here.” Suddenly he realizes he hasn’t any idea where the road is, and why should he be bothered? So he picks up a rock and kills his tormentor.
Campesinos took their toll with rock and machete. More murderous were the politicians and off-duty cops, each with his .45 automatic. One learned to hit the deck. Here is another actual story: A gun-toting politico hears his girl is cheating, meeting someone in this cocktail lounge. Some American kid just happens in and sits next to her, when the macho bursts in: “¡CHINGOA!” Hauls out his .45 and blasts the kid right off his bar stool. They drag the body outside and down the street a ways. When the cops arrive, the bartender shrugs and mops his bloody bar, and says only: “Malos, esos muchachos!” (“Those bad boys!”)
Every country has its own special Shits, like the Southern law-man counting his Nigger notches, and the sneering Mexican macho is certainly up there when it comes to sheer ugliness. And many of the Mexican middle class are about as awful as any bourgeoisie in the world. I remember that in Mexico the narcotic scripts were bright yellow, like a thousand-dollar bill, or a dishonorable discharge from the Army. One time Old Dave and I tried to fill such a script, which he had obtained quite legitimately from the Mexican government. The first pharmacist we hit jerked back snarling from such a sight: “¡No prestamos servicio a los viciosos!” (“We do not serve dope fiends!”)
From one farmacìa to another we walked, getting sicker with every step: “No, señor. . . .” We must have walked for miles.
“Never been in this neighborhood before.”
“Well, let’s try one more.”
Finally we entered a tiny hole-in-the-wall farmacìa. I pulled out the receta, and a gray-haired lady smiled at me. The pharmacist looked at the script, and said, “Two minutes, señor.”
We sat down to wait. There were geraniums in the window. A small boy brought me a glass of water, and a cat rubbed against my leg. After awhile the pharmacist returned with our morphine.
Outside, the neighborhood now seemed enchanted: Little farmacìas in a market, crates and stalls outside, a pulquerìa on the corner. Kiosks selling fried grasshoppers and peppermint candy black with flies. Boys in from the country in spotless white linen and rope sandals, with faces of burnished copper and fierce innocent black eyes, like exotic animals, of a dazzling sexless beauty. Here is a boy with sharp features and black skin, smelling of vanilla, a gardenia behind his ear. Yes, you found a Johnson, but you waded through Shitville to find him. You always do. Just when you think the earth is exclusively populated by Shits, you meet a Johnson.
One day there was a knock on my door at eight in the morning. I went to the door in my pyjamas, and there was an inspector from Immigration.
“Get your clothes on. You’re under arrest.” It seemed the woman next door had turned in a long report on my drunk and disorderly behavior, and also there was something wrong with my papers and where was the Mexican wife I was supposed to have? The Immigration officers were all set to throw me in jail to await deportation as an undesirable alien. Of course, everything could be straightened out with some money, but my interviewer was the head of the deporting department and he wouldn’t go for peanuts. I finally had to get up off of two hundred dollars. As I walked home from the Immigration Office, I imagined what I might have had to pay if I had really had an investment in Mexico City.
I thought of the constant problems the three American owners of the Ship Ahoy encountered. The cops came in all the time for a mordida, and then came the sanitary inspectors, then more cops trying to get something on the joint so they could take a real bite. They took the waiter downtown and beat the shit out of him. They wanted to know where was Kelly’s body stashed? How many women been raped in the joint? Who brought in the weed? And so on. Kelly was an American hipster who had been shot in the Ship Ahoy six months before, had recovered, and was now in the U.S. Army. No woman was ever raped there, and no one ever smoked weed there. By now I had entirely abandoned my plans to open a bar in Mexico.
An addict has little regard for his image. He wears the dirtiest, shabbiest clothes, and feels no need to call attention to himself. During my period of addiction in Tangiers, I was known as “El Hombre Invisible,” The Invisible Man. This disintegration of self-image often results in an indiscriminate image hunger. Billie Holliday said she knew she was off junk when she stopped watching TV. In my first novel, Junky, the protagonist “Lee” comes across as integrated and self-contained, sure of himself and where he is going. In Queer he is disintegrated, desperately in need of contact, completely unsure of himself and of his purpose.
The difference of course is simple: Lee on junk is covered, protected and also severely limited. Not only does junk short-circuit the sex drive, it also blunts emotional reactions to the vanishing point, depending on the dosage. Looking back over the action of Queer, that hallucinated month of acute withdrawal takes on a hellish glow of menace and evil drifting out of neon-lit cocktail bars, the ugly violence, the .45 always just under the surface. On junk I was insulated, didn’t drink, didn’t go out much, just shot up and waited for the next shot.
When the cover is removed, everything that has been held in check by junk spills out. The withdrawing addict is subject to the emotional excesses of a child or an adolescent, regardless of his actual age. And the sex drive returns in full force. Men of sixty experience wet dreams and spontaneous orgasms (an extremely unpleasant experience, agaçant as the French say, putting the teeth on edge). Unless the reader keeps this in mind, the metamorphosis of Lee’s character will appear as inexplicable or psychotic. Also bear in mind that the withdrawal syndrome is self-limiting, lasting no more than a month. And Lee has a phase of excessive drinking, which exacerbates all the worst and most dangerous aspects of the withdrawal sickness: reckless, unseemly, outrageous, maudlin–in a word, appalling–behavior.
After withdrawal, the organism readjusts and stabilizes at a pre-junk level. In the narrative, this stabilization is finally reached during the South American trip. No junk is available, nor any other drug, after the paregoric of Panama. Lee’s drinking has dwindled to several good stiff ones at sundown. Not so different from the Lee of the later Yage Letters, except for the phantom presence of Allerton.
So I had written Junky, and the motivation for that was comparatively simple: to put down in the most accurate and simple terms my experiences as an addict. I was hoping for publication, money, recognition. Kerouac had published The Town and the City at the time I started writing Junky. I remember writing in a letter to him, when his book was published, that money and fame were now assured. As you can see, I knew nothing about the writing business at the time.
My motivations to write Queer were more complex, and are not clear to me at the present time. Why should I wish to chronicle so carefully these extremely painful and unpleasant and lacerating memories? While it was I who wrote Junky, I feel that I was being written in Queer. I was also taking pains to ensure further writing, so as to set the record straight: writing as inoculation. As soon as something is written, it loses the power of surprise, just as a virus loses its advantage when a weakened virus has created alerted antibodies. So I achieved some immunity from further perilous ventures along these lines by writing my experience down.
At the beginning of the Queer manuscript fragment, having returned from the insulation of junk to the land of the living like a frantic inept Lazarus, Lee seems determined to score, in the sexual sense of the word. There is something curiously systematic and unsexual about his quest for a suitable sex object, crossing one prospect after another off a list which seems compiled with ultimate failure in mind. On some very deep level he does not want to succeed, but will go to any length to avoid the realization that he is not really looking for sex contact.
But Allerton was definitely some sort of contact. And what was the contact that Lee was looking for? Seen from here, a very confused concept that had nothing to do with Allerton as a character. While the addict is indifferent to the impression he creates in others, during withdrawal he may feel the compulsive need for an audience, and this is clearly what Lee seeks in Allerton: an audience, the acknowledgement of his performance, which of course is a mask, to cover a shocking disintegration. So he invents a frantic attention-getting format which he calls the Routine: shocking, funny, riveting. “It is an Ancient Mariner, and he stoppeth one of three. . . .”
The performance takes the form of routines: fantasies about Chess Players, the Texas Oilman, Corn Hole Gus’s Used-Slave Lot. In Queer, Lee addresses these routines to an actual audience. Later, as he develops as a writer, the audience becomes internalized. But the same mechanism that produced A.J. and Doctor Benway, the same creative impulse, is dedicated to Allerton, who is forced into the role of approving Muse, in which he feels understandably uncomfortable.
What Lee is looking for is contact or recognition, like a photon emerging from the haze of insubstantiality to leave an indelible recording in Allerton’s consciousness. Failing to find an adequate observer, he is threatened by painful dispersal, like an unobserved photon. Lee does not know that he is already committed to writing, since this is the only way he has of making an indelible record, whether Allerton is inclined to observe or not. Lee is being inexorably pressed into the world of fiction. He has already made the choice between his life and his work.
The manuscript trails off in Puyo, End of the Road town. . . . The search for Yage has failed. The mysterious Doctor Cotter wants only to be rid of his unwelcome guests. He suspects them to be agents of his treacherous partner Gill, intent on stealing his genius work of isolating curare from the composite arrow poison. I heard later that the chemical companies decided simply to buy up the arrow poison in quantity and extract the curare in their American laboratories. The drug was soon synthesized, and is now a standard substance found in many muscle-relaxing preparations. So it would seem that Cotter really had nothing to lose: his efforts were already superseded.
Dead end. And Puyo can serve as a model for the Place of Dead Roads: a dead, meaningless conglomerate of tin-roofed houses under a continual downpour of rain. Shell has pulled out, leaving prefabricated bungalows and rusting machinery behind. And Lee has reached the end of his line, an end implicit in the beginning. He is left with the impact of unbridgeable distances, the defeat and weariness of a long, painful journey made for nothing, wrong turnings, the track lost, a bus waiting in the rain . . . back to Ambato, Quito, Panama, Mexico City.
When I started to write this companion text to Queer, I was paralyzed with a heavy reluctance, a writer’s block like a straitjacket: “I glance at the manuscript of Queer and feel I simply can’t read it. My past was a poisoned river from which one was fortunate to escape, and by which one feels immediately threatened, years after the events recorded. –Painful to an extent I find it difficult to read, let alone to write about. Every word and gesture sets the teeth on edge.” The reason for this reluctance becomes clearer as I force myself to look: the book is motivated and formed by an event which is never mentioned, in fact is carefully avoided: the accidental shooting death of my wife, Joan, in September 1951.
While I was writing The Place of Dead Roads, I felt in spiritual contact with the late English writer Denton Welch, and modelled the novel’s hero, Kim Carson, directly on him. Whole sections came to me as if dictated, like table-tapping. I have written about the fateful morning of Denton’s accident, which left him an invalid for the remainder of his short life. If he had stayed a little longer here, not so long there, he would have missed his appointment with the female motorist who hit his bicycle from behind for no apparent reason. At one point Denton had stopped to have coffee, and looking at the brass hinges on the café’s window shutters, some of them broken, he was hit by a feeling of universal desolation and loss. So every event of that morning is charged with special significance, as if it were underlined. This portentous second sight permeates Welch’s writing: a scone, a cup of tea, an inkwell purchased for a few shillings, become charged with a special and often sinister significance.
I get exactly the same feeling to an almost unbearable degree as I read the manuscript of Queer.
The event towards which Lee feels himself inexorably driven is the death of his wife by his own hand, the knowledge of possession, a dead hand waiting to slip over his like a glove. So a smog of menace and evil rises from the pages, an evil that Lee, knowing and yet not knowing, tries to escape with frantic flights of fantasy: his routines, which set one’s teeth on edge because of the ugly menace just behind or to one side of them, a presence palpable as a haze.
Brion Gysin said to me in Paris: “For ugly spirit shot Joan because . . .” A bit of mediumistic message that was not completed–or was it? It doesn’t need to be completed, if you read it: “ugly spirit shot Joan to be cause,” that is, to maintain a hateful parasitic occupation. My concept of possession is closer to the medieval model than to modern psychological explanations, with their dogmatic insistence that such manifestations must come from within and never, never, never from without. (As if there were some clear-cut difference between inner and outer.) I mean a definite possessing entity. And indeed, the psychological concept might well have been devised by the possessing entities, since nothing is more dangerous to a possessor than being seen as a separate invading creature by the host it has invaded. And for this reason the possessor shows itself only when absolutely necessary.
In 1939, I became interested in Egyptian hieroglyphics and went out to see someone in the Department of Egyptology at the University of Chicago. And something was screaming in my ear: “YOU DONT BELONG HERE!” Yes, the hieroglyphics provided one key to the mechanism of possession. Like a virus, the possessing entity must find a port of entry.
This occasion was my first clear indication of something in my being that was not me, and not under my control. I remember a dream from this period: I worked as an exterminator in Chicago, in the late 1930s, and lived in a rooming house on the near North Side. In the dream I am floating up near the ceiling with a feeling of utter death and despair, and looking down I see my body walking out the door with deadly purpose.
One wonders if Yage could have saved the day by a blinding revelation. I remember a cut-up I made in Paris years later: “Raw peeled winds of hate and mischance blew the shot.” And for years I thought this referred to blowing a shot of junk, when the junk squirts out the side of the syringe or dropper owing to an obstruction. Brion Gysin pointed out the actual meaning: the shot that killed Joan.
I had bought a Scout knife in Quito. It had a metal handle and a curious tarnished old look, like something from a turn-of-the-century junk shop. I can see it in a tray of old knives and rings, with the silver plate flaking off. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon, a few days after I came back to Mexico City, and I decided to have the knife sharpened. The knife-sharpener had a little whistle and a fixed route, and as I walked down the street towards his cart a feeling of loss and sadness that had weighed on me all day so I could hardly breathe intensified to such an extent that I found tears streaming down my face.
“What on earth is wrong?” I wondered.
This heavy depression and a feeling of doom occurs again and again in the text. Lee usually attributes it to his failures with Allerton: “A heavy drag slowed movement and thought. Lee’s face was rigid, his voice toneless.” Allerton has just refused a dinner invitation and left abruptly: “Lee stared at the table, his thoughts slow, as if he were very cold.” (Reading this I am cold and depressed.)
Here is a precognitive dream from Cotter’s shack in Ecuador: “He was standing in front of the Ship Ahoy. The place looked deserted. He could hear someone crying. He saw his little son, and knelt down and took the child in his arms. The sound of crying came closer, a wave of sadness. … He held little Willy close against his chest. A group of people were standing there in Convict suits. Lee wondered what they were doing there and why he was crying.”
I have constrained myself to remember the day of Joan’s death, the overwhelming feeling of doom and loss . . . walking down the street I suddenly found tears streaming down my face. “What is wrong with me?” The small Scout knife with a metal handle, the plating peeling off, a smell of old coins, the knife-sharpener’s whistle. Whatever happened to this knife I never reclaimed?
I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.
I have constrained myself to escape death. Denton Welch is almost my face. Smell of old coins. Whatever happened to this knife called Allerton, back to the appalling Margaras Inc. The realization is basic formulated doing? The day of Joan’s doom and loss. Found tears streaming down from Allerton peeling off the same person as a Western shootist. What are you rewriting? A lifelong preoccupation with Control and Virus. Having gained access the virus uses the host’s energy, blood, flesh and bones to make copies of itself. Model of dogmatic insistence never never from without was screaming in my ear, “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!”
A straitjacket notation carefully paralyzed with heavy reluctance. To escape their prewritten lines years after the events recorded. A writers block avoided Joans death. Denton Welch is Kim Carson’s voice through a cloud underlined broken table tapping.
William S. Burroughs, February 1985
Man as map
I will start by thanking those who brought me here. It was Mai Ibrashi, I believe, who first paid attention to the geographic aspect of my first novel, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal—in many ways also my first full-length book—which, though it was completed in two spurts over a three-year span, gathered together a lifetime’s efforts and experiments in writing, in playing with different registers of Arabic, and in looking at the world—or Cairo.
In it the hero, Mustafa, who will soon start having historical visitations, notably from the last Ottoman sultan, is propelled into rediscovering those parts of the city in which his life comes to have meaning, by drawing the routes he takes as he actually experiences them, with his eyes closed. The shapes that he ends up with later combine to produce a tugra or sultan’s seal—which comes to be the symbol of the city as one person’s madness, the city as Mustafa: a calligraphic emblem with many non-empirical references to reality. A sort of psychological form of map-making thus became at the centre of the creative process.
I was not as aware when I wrote the novel as I am now that what I had Mustafa do was one form of what might be termed literary cartography. That is: the appropriation of space through an internalization of its subjective and human (as opposed to objective or “scientific”) experience with the purpose of integrating the result into a print context—in this case, by turning it into calligraphy. In my new novel project, I am using the Phoenician letter Waw to a similar end—it is similar to the Latin Y but not the same—comparing it with the shape of the Nile valley in Egypt among other cartographic representations of topics being dealt with, all reached through the very personal experience of the characters.
I will not get into the details of how this works in each book. All I want to say is that literary cartography—so understood—is an interesting mode of engagement that has rarely been explored or practiced in context. Some conceptual artists have no doubt employed cartography in their work in a similar way, perhaps architects and designers and theorists too, which goes to show that maps make up an essentially multidisciplinary approach to the real. But in terms of literature, though the inclusion of cartography forges instant and fascinating connections with illuminated manuscripts and many echelons of the Arabic canon, it remains more or less unknown. So all I will do tonight is talk a little about literary cartography.
I am not much of an artist, but I’ve found photo-based representation—first through the dark room, then digitally—to be invaluable in the process of complementing print with imagery to which a relatively complex idea might be uniquely anchored: post-millennial Cairo as an Ottoman seal, for example, or the Nile valley as a sacred letter. I’ve also always been fascinated by maps as an alternative mode of recording reality in print, and writing places—of which I’ve done more than any other kind—is a less precise but more inclusive form of map-making.
Literary cartography has to do with two quite separate things, I believe: two ideas, two motives, two different activities of the novelist as witness and, principally, as a writer of extended letters to unknown recipients but also as someone who crystallizes human experience into signs (whether letters or drawings) laid out on paper.
First, there is the fact that, for reasons of temperament and drive, writers tend to be self-obsessed no matter how much they endeavor to prove the opposite. This is aesthetically perhaps as it should be, in the sense that it is within a given creative intellect that this intellect is likely to find literary meaning or beauty. The beauty in literature seems to come less from the object being written about—confusingly, this is often referred to as the subject—than from the manner of its transformation into language: how a city like Cairo becomes a calligraphic symbol, to follow through the example. This process belongs with the writer, not the world. Reality is subordinated to a subjective standpoint that makes no attempt at eliminating bias.
I don’t actually necessarily believe that this all that happens, since the subject too—the writer—is part of a greater reality and presumably open to all sorts of currents: I could go on about the writer as convoy or medium, about things like objective coincidence and automatic writing. But still, subjectivity in this sense, however aesthetically perfect, raises moral questions. Nor is it simply that people get upset with you when you write honestly about them, for example. Unlike that of a map drawn to scale, your image of reality is going to be all but private, solipsistic even, the meaningless sounds made by a social outcast humming to himself in the dark.
When that picture is condensed into an objectively articulate image, something everyone can look at and appreciate at least as much as a map—even if it will never be nearly as useful—that sense of moral doubt is significantly reduced. It is almost as if, by constructing your statement logically and enunciating it clearly, you bring it into daylight. You do not turn the subject into an object the way empirical science does, but you produce a subjective object, an object that integrates bias as an essential part of its constitution, an object which—even though it remains an object—could never exist without the subject that brought it into reality: the signs, the letters, the language is utilized to a meaningful end.
Secondly, besides all else that he does, a writer is forced to make a choice between time and space, history and geography, narrative and description. I happen to believe that time or history is more violently peremptory and limiting. It is more prone to meaninglessness, to the exclusionary blindness and manipulative falsification of power (something that can be seen clearly in current, presidential-elections narratives of the revolution). That is partly because, compared to stories or human beings, it is much more difficult to judge places as such. Unless you include the narrative of what it depicts and how, looking at a map, it is impossible to say that its shape is immoral, for example, or that its stance is unfair.
Building on my first point—that a writer’s subject will inevitably be himself—I want to argue that conceiving of the self as inclusive, pluralistic space is far more rewarding and ultimately also more honest than presenting it as a narrative of the triumph of good over evil (or the defeat of good by evil), no matter what kind of good the subject stands for, or how complex, which is what literature is likely to reduce to once it surrenders itself wholly to the idiocies of history. The self as a geography of humanity that is trying, in a desperate but courageous bid, to transcend history: that seems far more meaningful than the self as a the convoy of an inevitably false and ultimately one-dimensional storyline.
However contrived in the context of a given novel, however subjective in fact, literary cartography, it seems to me, is the clearest embodiment of the self as space in language: the map that makes no reference to empirical reality is the salient image of literature as the epistemological exercise of making sense of the world through words or (as they are or should be) through signs inscribed on paper that, looked at, inspire faith in the meaning of life.
Talk at Megawara on Sunday, 27 May, 2012
It took Youssef Rakha nearly a decade to reread Yasser Abdellatif’s only novel to date, Qanoun al wirathah (Law of inheritance, Cairo: Dar Miret, 2002, a third edition of which appeared last month), but together with the 41-year-old writer’s second collection of poems, Jawlah layliyah (Night tour, Miret, 2009), that impossibly condensed autobiography prompted a heartfelt exchange
I started writing at a very early age and I don’t know of any motives behind it. I was 15 at most and there was no theoretical background at all in the process. I wrote short stories which only two of my friends read. At university the practise developed. It was a chance to find out about new books, and at the Faculty of Arts I met with a group of student writers from different departments like Ahmad Yamani from Arabic, Mohammad Metwalli from English, Hoda Hussein from French and Sayed Mahmoud from History; I was at the Department of Philosophy where I met a politicised, Marxist friend whose name was Nasser Ismail; he helped to direct my reading even though he did not try to enlist me the way leftist students usually did to newcomers on campus. All of which was in the presence of professors like Hassan Hanafi, Nassr Abuzaid, Mahmoud Ragab, Abdel-Mohsen Badr, Abdel-Moneim Telleimah, Gaber Asfour and Sayed El-Bahrawi: while we differed with and around those figures, a true literary climate formed for a period of time at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. The first story I wrote with any degree of maturity was published in Rose al Yusif magazine on a double page spread with illustrations by the great artist Tad. I was 20. From then on I started dealing with myself as a “professional” writer, to the point of being too proud to participate in the university’s literary competitions…
I did not move from poetry to narrative, the opposite is what happened. I started with short stories. By the time I met Ahmad Yamani and Mohammad Metwalli, who had covered much ground in the prose poem, I was writing a poetic form of the short story, perhaps under the influence of Yahya El-Tahir Abdallah. Through my relationship with them and under the influence of C P Cavafy in the translations of Bashir El-Seba’i and the Antipoesía of Latin America in those of Ahmad Hassan, I discovered the poetic energy of narrative and so moved onto the prose poem.
According to Qanoun al wirathah, one of only three slim volumes by Yasser Abdellatif, life consists of a series of melancholy “old stories” that manifest momentarily like LSD flashbacks. Abdellatif’s narrator never says this in so many words, but in a sense it is the point of the book. In writing that eschews all but the subtlest emotions, there is something elegiac about the way people come briefly into focus, only to blur back into a backdrop so pointillistic it appears almost clear. They are Nubian immigrants to Cairo, teenage pioneers of the recreational Parkinol craze, or intellectuals-to-be studying humanities. There is no connection between them, no pattern in which they fit, apart from the narrator’s own harshly disciplined consciousness.
An eclectic approach to narrative – and Abdellatif differentiates his work from fiction, insisting that narrative is what it is: Qanoun al wirathah develops a declension of the Sixties legacy represented for him by Ghalib Halassa and Abdel-Hakim Qassim, who are different from each other in subject matter and tone (and not always as Latifian as you would think from the way Abdellatif talks about them) but are perhaps the least two sensational novelists of their time writing in Arabic. In rich, measured prose reflecting an extremely personal sense of the language, each processes the world without artifice, without recourse to drama and with only a modicum of storyline, if that. Each laboriously constructs his passages, devising rather than giving in to spontaneity.
Here too structure emerges directly from words and sentences, from the insane drive to match consciousness to what is being said, and above all the insanely rigorous selection of what is worth saying – to my mind the principal reason Abdellatif has written so little over the years. The “I” of the writer, a Cairo University graduate of Nubian extraction whose formative years involved much recreational drug use – notably in Maadi, a potentially cult setting very different from the upper class-and-expatriate suburb associated with the place name – is identical to that of the narrator.
Is it any surprise that, between the first half of the 20th century (when his family first settled in Cairo) and the 1991 Gulf War (while he was a Cairo University student), past numerous anecdotes and settings and people, what emerges from Qanoun al wirathah is the writer’s own weirdly amorphous self, an ego so truly individual it is not only truly but also very effectively wary of narcissism?
“To look at yourself directly in the mirror,” Abdellatif declaims at one point, “is not to see it. Instead you see your emotion towards it, which lends the picture before you beauty in every case. But to look at yourself in the mirror through another mirror, then you see it in isolation from it[self]… as a subject outside of you… Rest content with this double reflection of your picture, and you will learn not to love yourself with that blind love, to catch it every time it tries to make itself beautiful, and to force it under your whips until you divest it of all that doesn’t belong to it.”
Right after that passage, and without “the flow” being disrupted, three short lines of dialogue between an older French Canadian woman and the narrator make it clear that he is scared of madness and has already tried to kill himself once. A frustrated sexual encounter – and yet another story never told – the anecdote trails off into a series of resonant if inevitably inconclusive reminiscences of desire.
I wrote Qanoun al wiratha with a view to completing a “major work” by coming at autobiography from oblique angles; in it I realised all my narrative convictions up until that time, the end of the 1990s. I finished it in 2000 and published it in 2002, and I believe I accomplished in it exactly what I intended. At present I have almost completed a book of short stories – I like that form a lot, and I don’t feel it is done justice at any level – but at the same time I have a project for a new novel that will be completely different from Qanoun al wiratha. Increasingly I believe that my poetry or my poetic project, if I could exaggerate enough to call it that, will neither develop nor have legitimacy except in the light of my narrative writing. I feel that in order to write a good poem, I have to write a lot of narrative first.
Qanoun al wirathah recalls the early work of Paul Auster and (without the sentimentality) the rhythmic flow of Beatnik prose. At times evocative of Haruki Murakami in his naturalist mode, except for chronological consistency, it seems to abide by the rules of the Japanese I-Novel. One thing, however – Abdellatif’s core quality, I think, which he finds sufficiently equivocal to equivocally deny – sets it apart from all possible kinships in the realm of the novel: it reads like poetry.
Far too much in it is far too condensed to be pure (even poetic) narrative, and its stories – old and melancholy or not – are seldom told to the end. The intensity, the abrupt shifts in perspective, the sheer weight of each phrase, and then the relative lack of concern for cognitive as opposed to visceral sense – the way the meaning of a given statement depends on what it evokes, not what it says – all seem far closer to the poetic than the narrative as such. Of course, this is not to equate the Latifian with the lyrical. But it is not necessarily to equate the Latifian with the anti-lyrical, either: the colloquial, physical world-oriented irreverence that defined the prose poetry movement of the Nineties (of which Abdellatif became part).
In Jawlah Layliyah, indeed, many poems are completely free of the Nineties’ subversive strictures, and some come close to song, an austere, unpretentious kind often welded to the need to share the beautiful burden of stories. In “Implicit Agreement”, for example, although Abdellatif seems to be parodying a particular kind of romantic-erotic poem, there is nothing shocking or cynical or ugly and nothing particularly prosaic: “Our eyes did not meet as two caves where the monster of desire sleeps, waking only on confrontation,/nor did our bodies break the rules of respectful contact/in a quiet dance we never performed./Neither of us was bold enough for initiative./She just handed me her large blue comb/and nodded/so I would comb her hair.”
To say that Abdellatif’s novella reads like poetry, then, is to point simply to the fact that, in almost involuntary defiance of form, there is such a thing as a Sentence through which a particular writer constructs an equally particular connection with the real, without fantastical or analytical ambitions, but without much openness to alternative (non-“realist” or non-personal) Sentences, either. And this has not changed since the poetic short stories turned narrative prose poems of his first book, Nass wa ahjar (People and stones, self-published in 1995): Abdellatif insists on his particularity to the point of sitting on top of vast reservoirs of silence, and so the things that happen in poetry end up happening in whatever else he writes: short stories, essays (literary non-fiction), and novels whether or not rightly so called.
Such tip-of-the-iceberg ontology becomes even clearer once the faults of the Latifian are considered. Beyond the obvious difficulty it would present to a reader expecting plot – this is hardly a fault in itself, but still – the problem with Qanoun al wirathah (which by virtue of format and format alone is less of a problem in Jawlah Layliyah) is that it does not tell. In his drive to avoid the confessional and in the stress he places on constructing and creating to the exclusion of the more immediately appealing qualities you might expect from realistic and sincere I-Writing – scandalous or tear-jerking qualities associated with information and overt emotion – Abedellatif sustains a certain reticence that makes him discreet. He insinuates, suggests, remarks; he never brags or exposes. There is not a shade a of self-censorship about what Abdellatif does – quite the opposite – but there is too much modesty in the most admirable sense, too much decency.
Up until the Seventies Generation, the Arab Poet was a testosterone-driven prophet with superhuman pretensions and a sense of responsibility for the world. Abdellatif was a depressive existentialist high on Parkinol.
It seems to me that the failure of intellectual work in Egypt is because the idea of individualism has remained incompletely realised. In a culture characterised by totalitarianism at every level, egos ensure that the mechanisms of the larger society that gave rise to an alternative group are reproduced within that group even as it presents itself in terms of being different. Still, it feels right to separate downtown Cairo as a space in my experience from the groups of intellectuals who gather there. Downtown Cairo was never unfamiliar to me, because I spent a good portion of my childhood in my grandfather’s house between Bab Al-Luq and Abdeen, a few metres away from the “Bermuda triangle” of intellectuals’ gathering places. As for intellectuals’ circles, I was part of early on, and I think I have been cured over time, both because I suffered from the idea of the clique and because most of my close friends from the world of writing happened to immigrate early. I think after that I stayed on the margin of those circles, though I was never entirely isolated, until I travelled to Canada in my turn at the end of last year.
It starts, I imagine, with a suicide attempt (figurative as well as literal); it ends with a new life somewhere far, some kind of voluntary death giving way to an afterlife in which the initial impulse looks like an old story. Or at the very least it ends with a book, a book project, something to hold up to the suffocating meaninglessness of existence. It almost certainly does not find resolution among fellow intellectuals however marginal they too claim to be, however particular their predicaments.
The late 1980s are a time when the short story is getting shorter and more lyrical and the metric rules hitherto thought necessary for the poem are finally breaking down for good. It is also a time when dysfunctional capitalism is taking its toll on all but the nouveaux riches of the free-market era. Social and moral values are not so much atrophying as deforming. Nationalism and loyalty to the patriarchs look more and more like cancers of the intellect. Official institutions, which still control society, have reached new heights of corruption; religious fundamentalism, initially abetted by the Sadat regime, is out of control. Far and away to be intellectual means to be politicised, and to be politicised to be Marxist. Never mind the fact that you might not like Marxism: discourse and practise are as dogmatic and limiting as religion itself; there is little if any space for an individual mind to work its way through the labyrinth of consciousness.
Taken together in retrospect, Abdellatif’s three books sound like an exquisitely muffled scream in response to the questions posed by growing up to that, in a place where neither money nor sex is as forthcoming as it might be, nor perhaps as desirable. With various degrees of subversion and cynicism, they touch on only two other subjects, both of which take up more space in Jawlah Layliyah than anywhere else: redemptive (and thus often resented) love; and the inevitability of friendship.
Is it Abdellatif’s modesty that prevents him from telling his old stories in a more explicit way? Is it his sense of right or of futility that stops him from recounting his often disappointing experience of Cairo literary life, whether in his writing or as a veteran of all those ludicrous wars? In the poem with which the new book opens, “The End of Adolescence”, three friends leave the house of “a certain madwoman” drunk, they pretend to be plainclothes policemen to torment lorry drivers on the road, they stomp on a load of neon lamps they happen upon “on the void asphalt of the Cairo dawn”; a week after that, the speaker says, “and the third of us has sold himself to the devil/while I remained with the other,/he not seeing, I not speaking…”
Latifian reticence is characteristic of neither the universal novelist nor the Egyptian Nineties Generation prose poet. Abdellatif seeks the substance of a state of being, not its paraphernalia. His literary objective may be noble but, more importantly, it is a rare and shatteringly urban choice; with the time and effort required for the inner battles that make writing possible or necessary at all, perhaps it is impossible to be any more prolific and still attempt to achieve it.
Before he grew familiar with the way to school
the sickly child grew familiar with
the doctor’s place:
the pharmacy below the clinic
with its brown closets
and a young attendant wearing fashions that date back two decades
wrapping the bottles in paper printed with the logo,
which she reeled off a large roll with a metal core,
and noting the times of the doses in clear writing.
On distant mornings
you and your mother would go down to her to buy the medicine.
Why, then, did the pharmacy shift places
in the night,
sliding at least four buildings across?
There is a restaurant at the street corner
whose glass facade which the steam misted over
shows appetising, low-priced food;
it seems very close, over at the curve.
Night after night you will put off having dinner there
and go along with what it takes to stay up and be tired;
the day you make up your mind,
with a strike,
some diabolical hand will have lifted the whole place
off the map of existence.
And in the dark quarter of your knowledge of the city
beyond the street with which you thought the world ended when you were small
is an old traffic post and the ghost of an elderly policeman at the crossroads
with sleepy lights on a night moist with dew.
There stands a forgotten variety theatre
where the numbers are performed on a narrow stage
flanked by two tiers of seats on which the onlookers have gathered.
You are an onlooker and a backstage hand,
your viewpoint flits between the two places
from pointers to clamorous lives
and promises of sustained indulgence
to where safety
fares better than regret
which is as light as beer foam.
Translation of the title poem of Abdellatif’s last book and of “Implicit Agreement” © Youssef Rakha
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Samia Mehrez, Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practise (paperback edition), Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2010
Recently, in an otherwise casual conversation, a writer friend remarked that the Egyptian culture scene was like an oligarchy with no constituency beyond the oligarchs. As agents of what looks like the Victorian age of Arab arts and letters, she elaborated, Egyptian intellectuals are power mongers by default. Many are in the employ of institutions where the production of knowledge is less of an aim than a pretext – for income and status – or for preserving the political status quo. But even those who are not, in their isolation from society at large, end up developing delicate networks of interest among themselves; consciously or not, they engage in various forms of hypocrisy or corruption, blocking what creative potential exists apart from them. The result is that the cultural sphere reduces to a set of boutiques corresponding to institutions or cliques, mutually beneficial and unduly exclusive. And that – so my writer friend concluded – is because intellectuals rely for their survival not on consumers of culture but on complex systems of patronage and their attendant discourses.
Of course relying on consumers bespeaks unmediated capitalism and so introduces a new set of issues. But it is the readiness of Egypt’s Culture Wars to pay attention to the commercially oriented and the popular as well as the “high”, the high-brow and the aesthetically pure that justifies its numerous and frequently disparate pursuits. The book respects the cerebral no more than the public or the overtly political, the settings and protagonists of the intellectual fables it presents no less than the hard theoretical plotlines by which they unfold.
Samia Mehrez is aware enough of my friend’s line of thinking not to pretend to stand apart from the constraints and confusions of what she is doing even as she writes: her ceaselessly evolving understanding of her own role as a cultural agent occupying a position of privilege and with a vested interest in her subject matter. But what makes Mehrez’s all but exhaustive statement on the topic compelling is the way it charts the soap opera-like developments of cultural icons and narratives pitted against society - and especially the intellectual’s vulnerability to dependency and censorship – in a wide variety of contexts. The novelist Sonallah Ibrahim’s life-long refusal to have any dealings with a government-dominated literary establishment, for example – the implications of this stance for his writing, its reception, and the shifts it has undergone – is deployed to flesh out the notion of “the disinterested writer” and, more broadly, the theory and practice of engagement in its local modulations since the 1960s. Mehrez uses not only her own knowledge of Ibrahim and his work but also a newspaper column on Ibrahim by his contemporary the novelist Gamal Al-Ghitani, whose approach to the same goals of writerly “honour” and autonomy is markedly different from Ibrahim’s. What otherwise might have been a dry discussion of an abstract and frankly overdrawn subject suddenly takes on flesh-and-blood edge.
By juggling straightforward political commitments with bookish frameworks in which they do not always obviously fit – freedom of expression and gender awareness, for example, with Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of literary autonomy – Mehrez manages, for better or worse, to bring depth to arguably shallow cultural products like Alaa Al-Aswany’s phenomenal bestseller, The Yaqoubian Building; by the same token, she takes purely academic topics – the family in Egyptian literature of the 1990s, say – out of the narrow parameters of literary criticism. And the vitality with which she does this, her insistence on weaving in her own experience as both producer and consumer is, more than any theoretical or “intellectual” achievement, what makes Egypt’s Culture Wars an important and versatile stroke.
I could argue with Mehrez’s claim that “writing in English about the Egyptian cultural field” – a process, as she puts it, of translation – “places this local and localized text alongside a larger global one”, or at least probe the hows, wheres and whys of this premise. But it seems to me that the distance that same process generates is precisely what makes or breaks each interactive exercise the book proposes, that Mehrez’s half-committed standpoint – the heterogeneous and “postcolonial” pluralism of her approach – is precisely what hermeneutically enables her work. Like much interdisciplinary north-south scholarship, as it also seems to me, a certain common-sense rationalism, what I might call a pretend objectivity, belies the essentially subjective nature of this undertaking as a whole.
Discussing the attacks to which the American University in Cairo’s Naguib Mahfouz Award was subjected as a distorting and negative force in Egyptian literary life, for example, Mehrez employs the spot-on metaphor of the writers’ alley: an exclusive space for engagement undermined by foreign – specifically, American – intervention. But in so doing she seems to confuse the critic Sayed El-Bahrawy’s nationalist tirades against the prize itself with very valid criticisms of who the prize went to. The uproar surrounding its award to the Algerian writer Ahlam Mostaghanmi in 1998 has less to do with Mostaghanmi being a stranger to the writer’s alley – her position as an Algerian or a woman or a newcomer to the literary field – than it does with the patently poor quality of Mostaghanmi’s writing – almost universally regarded as some of the worst ever produced in the language, whether or not it ended up selling well – something Mehrez neither brings up nor justifies.
Then again – and especially where gender is concerned – Mehrez is unashamedly subjective. “In December 1998 I found myself at the heart of a major crisis surrounding my teaching of the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri’s controversial autobiographical text Al Khubz al-hafi (For Bread Alone) in one of my literature classes at the American University in Cairo,” she writes. “The crisis that began on campus as part of a debate over academic freedom and freedom of expression soon took on national, regional and international proportions when the parents of two students sent an unsigned letter to the AUC administration calling for my dismissal and threatening to take me and the university to court.” The “khubz crisis”, however, is but one spaciotemporal episode on what, grandiloquently but perhaps also ironically, she takes to be a battlefield where the forces of freedom do battle with those of dictatorship, dispossession, power and power abuse in literary-social relations.
Mehrez’s notion of right seems to be formulated slightly to the left of the liberal status quo of advanced capitalist societies, in line with her common-sense rationalism and the conditions under which she produced her work. But it is her far-fetchedly holistic accomplishment, the sense of a totality of culture and the totality of a specific culture in a specific sociotemporal space that, more than any sense of right, whether subjective or objective, makes an impression on this reader.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha
Bianca Brigitte Bonomi
At the London Book Fair two years ago, Arab literature took centre stage. It was the subject of lectures, debates and interactive sessions with authors and publishers. Despite its prevalence over the course of the week, however, we learnt that Arab literature hadn’t made significant inroads into the West. Factors ranging from censorship to an under-developed publishing infrastructure and a paucity of translators were contributing to its status as a largely untapped literary market.
Two years on, and progress is being made. There is an increasing literary awareness within the region and a growing international interest. A number of prestigious awards are being offered to stimulate reading and translation in the Arab world. We have an “Arab Booker” prize, publishing houses including Penguin and Bloomsbury are expanding into the Gulf and authors such as Alaa el Aswany are becoming household names: all paying testament to the serious drive to place Arabic texts alongside writing from more heavily marketed parts of the world on western bookshelves.
Beirut39, a Hay Festival project that aims to select and celebrate 39 of the most interesting Arab writers under the age of 40 as part of the Beirut World Capital festivities 2009/10, is a forerunner in promoting this literature on a global stage.
The Hay Festival’s interest in Arab literature is linked in no small part to the obvious potential of this emerging market. “The statistics speak for themselves,” says Bachar Chebaro, the owner of Arab Scientific Publishers and the secretary general of the Arab Publishers Association. “Twenty-four Arab countries, a population of 340 million and 422 million Arabic speakers living outside of the region.” In the current economic climate, western publishers are increasingly tempted by this huge potential readership and the world’s largest festival of books has taken note.
Hay, now in its 22nd year, is a literary institution. In May, more than 100,000 people braved the rain to head to the sleepy book town on the Welsh border. The festival has hosted ex-presidents, rock stars and Booker prize winners and has extended its global reach in recent years to include offshoots in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, Segovia and Alhambra in Spain and Nairobi, Kenya. Beirut39 follows Bogotá39, which launched in the Colombian city in 2007 and identified many of the most promising rising Latin American talents, including Daniel Alarcón, Junot Díaz, Wendy Guerra, Andrés Newman and Juan Gabriel Vásquez.
In the past, Arabic texts translated have generally been those produced by established writers. Important new literary awards have increased the profile of Arabic literature in the Arab world and worldwide, but the writers who have benefited have for the most part already enjoyed long careers. In recognition of the fact that the difficulties facing emerging Arab writers are particularly acute, Beirut39 set out to identify writers at the start of their careers struggling to find a wider audience. First or second-generation Arab authors born after 1970 with at least one published work of fiction or poetry were eligible for inclusion and nominations were solicited from publishers and literary critics across the Arab world and internationally. Members of the public were invited to nominate writers online and – controversially – authors could nominate themselves.
Around 500 young authors from across the Arab world as well as the Arab diaspora in Europe and America submitted their works. The vast majority of these texts were written in Arabic.
“England has always struggled to get interested in any literature not written in English,” says Cristina Fuentes La Roche, the Hay Festival project director. “They translate less literature than other countries in Europe. At the moment there are some terrific Arab authors succeeding in the western world, but they all write in English or in French. This project will give Arabic writers a real boost,” she says.
At the Frankfurt Book Fair last month, the entrants were whittled down to the final 39. Members of the committee, headed by the Egyptian literary critic Gaber Asfour, and including the Lebanese novelist Alawiya Sobh, the Omani poet Saif Al Rahbi and the Lebanese poet and critic Abdo Wazen, focused on the degree of potential shown by the authors. The winners include the Saudi-born Abdullah Thabit, the Moroccans Abdelaziz Errachidi, Yassin Adnan, Abdelkader Benali and Abderrahim Elkhassar, Lebanon’s Hala Kawtharani, the Egyptoian Youssef Rakha, the Palestinian Adania Shibli and the Iraqi Ahmad Saadawi. Faiza Guene, a young French-Algerian writer whose first novel was published at the age of 19, is on the list, as is the award-winning short-story writer, novelist and translator Randa Jarrar. Her first novel, A Map of Home, was released to critical acclaim in six languages, and won the Hopwood Award, the Gosling Prize and the Arab American Book Award. The Iraqi poet and playwright Bassim Al Ansar was also shortlisted. In 1999, Ansar started a contemporary literature magazine in Denmark, his current home, and has had several books of poetry published.
The 39 authors will travel to Beirut in April for four days of literary talks, debates and recitals. Libraries, bookshops, cafes and universities will welcome visitors to discuss the issues at the heart of Arab contemporary fiction. The festival hopes to attract a diverse audience, reflecting the power of writing to stimulate social cohesion and cultural understanding.
To mark the occasion, Bloomsbury will publish Beirut39, an anthology of fiction and poetry by the selected authors with an introduction by the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf. The book will be published in English and Arabic in the UK, the US and the Arab world.
“This is one of the most exciting projects Bloomsbury has undertaken in recent years and is entirely in keeping with its commitment to the best writing from all over the world,” says Bill Swainson, the senior commissioning editor at Bloomsbury London. “We are hugely appreciative of the judges’ careful work in considering submissions and delighted with the scope, energy and quality of their final selection.”
The backing of the publishing house is a boost to the project and will facilitate the sharing of literature around the globe. For the author and former National staffer Rakha, however, the problem of engagement is about understanding and appreciation as well as infrastructure. “Pessimistically, I think perhaps westerners are not as interested in the contemporary Arab world as we like to think they are, and when something is written in a language so different from French or Spanish and published by a small house with no contacts on the other side of the Mediterranean, there is no reason to expect publishers or readers who might feel culturally superior to pay attention to it,” he says.
“The irony, of course, is that a lot of Arabic writing could actually be very relevant and engaging to westerners at the basic, human, universal level – if only they had the means and inclination to read it. Should the resources become available to translate and publicise the right books in the right contexts, which I feel they increasingly are, I think we can expect the situation to improve. But the most encouraging development is that many Arab publishers are increasingly aware of the global publishing industry and working hard to reach out.”
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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
Translated by Philip Gabriel
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.”
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