Azhar al-Shams is Youssef Rakha’s first collection of short stories, yet it constitutes a mature beginning, containing none of the faults characteristic of many young authors’ early works. His thematic framework is robustly formulated, his language elaborately multilayered and evocative, with the interplay between connection and association, and its resulting resonance, effectively portraying “misfits” who relate to the world only through fantasies that both connect and separate them from the flow of “ordinary” life.
“Jails”, for example, the first story, hints at an ambiguous force that delights in putting young people in jail and thus in “ruining their future”. The story begins following the dispersal of a “gang”, only two members of which now remain in contact. The first of these, who is the narrator of the story, is himself about to serve a prison sentence, while his friend is on trial and is terrified of going to jail. It is spring, and the remembrance of past springs — of family, Easter eggs and salted fish in public parks, beer and the secretive talk of girlfriends — is all that makes life worth living. Not only physical jails await the two young men however: frustration and isolation make an entrance into the story too, and they are shown clinging to fleeting moments of light as a refuge against existential solitude and their dreary lives. Here as elsewhere in Rakha’s stories a dreamy narrator-protagonist is shown to be suffocating under the weight of reality: the very air of the city where he lives is still, and all that is left to him are the shreds of human contact. All his attempts to engage with the human or natural environment are shown to be doomed, apprehensions and obsessions haunting him as he sinks into fantasies of fear or failure.
“Fire is nothing but elongated orange shapes”, a key phrase in another short story, “Tea Leaves”, would seem to sum up this condition. In this story, the narrator finds himself in a boat on a lake, “the boat is very black, the lake is green as olives, the wood of the boat in flames” — a nightmarish hallucination that aptly represents Rakha’s sense of being-in-the-world. The narrator of the story, a newspaper boy deserted by his Upper Egyptian family, is prey to such hallucinations, which resemble abstract paintings in line and in colour, and these become more frequent following the death of his only friend in a motorcycle accident. The friend leaves him nothing but “a stone bringing luck” that in sunlight glows in “a hundred thousand shades of colour”, such colour being represented, for example, in the fire that surrounds the boat. This is described as being without flame and merely a mass of bright orange polygons surrounding a patch of darkness.
The hero of this story is devoid of heroism, his daily early-morning bicycle rides to deliver the papers offering him a view of the city clad in one enormous cloud. Unsurprisingly, he pictures himself swimming in this cloud, as if seeking an impossible shore. The house in which he is staying with his lover, a servant, does not belong to him, since she has only been given the keys to clean the house while its owners are away and, as the story progresses, their return, which will force his departure, becomes increasingly immanent. Towards the end of the story the lovers are shown clinging to each other, as if eager to squeeze out the very last drops of vitality from their relationship, though, as their lovemaking becomes noisier, the narrator envisions an undesired baby in his partner’s belly. Despite these fears, shortly before being expelled from this momentary paradise, the two protagonists stand on the balcony drinking tea. The protagonist has lost his good-luck stone, and the wet tea leaves at the bottom of his glass, though they too manage to glow “in one hundred thousand shades of colour”, seem faint and subdued, like many of Rakha’s moments of remembrance.
Another story, “Blackberry Bushes”, shows the narrator attempting to break out of this miserable condition, a parallel being drawn between the contents of the narrator’s psyche and the bushes. Against a background of deepening sky and dimming stars, the narrator comes upon an old blackberry bush with dried-up branches and no blossom, and this, “together with the façade of a yellow building… made up an ugly painting.” An image of blackberry bushes swaying in the wind brings to mind his old father against the backdrop of the sea, since, outside the old house in which they had once lived, had stood a half-dead blackberry bush. Thus the bush the narrator sees in present time is a kind of “double”; a parallel between the dying bush and the narrator’s aging father, with his wrinkled face and white hair, is established, fleshed out by the roaring of the sea and the sound of the bush swaying in the wind. Failing to rid himself of the bush’s image, together with the disconcerting roaring of the sea, the narrator is shown to be similarly incapable of ridding himself of the people and relationships associated with it. The oppressive conditions under which he lives are internalised as an obsessive feeling of “surveillance”, or chase. “Blackberry Bushes” in its lack of linear time and developing plot well represents the essence of Rakha’s method. Instead of these he posits symbolic relations and a tightly structured web of themes employed to represent characters against their respective realities and to give concrete form to the life of the mind.
“Flowers of the Sun”, the title story, though it does not depart from these general features, represents a special locus slightly removed from this framework of suffocation and dreams of revolt. The longest and also the most elaborate of the stories in the volume, it sets the tone for the rest of the collection and illuminates it. The narrator-protagonist here is a wannabe artist who loves poetry and music and lives a suspended life, based on memories and fantasies from the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch artist’s letters to his brother Theo form a sub-text to Rakha’s tale. The protagonist describes himself as a person of no consequence who will leave no mark on people or on things and, in what seems to be an inversion of the familiar idea of mimesis — the view that art “reflects” a prior reality — life here is shown to be imitating art throughout, as the narrator’s life takes on the shape of Van Gogh’s. Images of death haunt the protagonist: images of his aging father, a kitchen knife, a “vase capable of crushing my skull at any moment, its shrapnel penetrating my brain cells” seem strangely powerful, and yet on arriving at an Alexandria beach before sunrise and watching the light grow while lounging on the sand, “the happy moments in the life of Van Gogh” are also brought to life for him, causing him to sprint along the edge of the sea. When such physical effort has exhausted him, he feels rejuvenated despite his fatigue, and his fears ebb away as the skyline changes colour, giving way to the clear blue light of dawn. This is a primary instance of moments of pure joy that permeate the collection, despite its otherwise sombre tone.
The next day the narrator decides to paint the sunrise in an attempt to ‘solarise’ the world around him, as Van Gogh is thought to have done. Things are still not altogether cheerful, however, and the darker side of Van Gogh’s world, portrayed impressively in the paintings, is likened to the narrator’s own field of vision. A Paris café in red and green is evoked by places where the narrator’s friends and colleagues gather; a disproportionately attractive girl who loves paintings reminds the narrator of the English woman who refused to marry Van Gogh, in turn reminding him of a brief and abortive love affair in Switzerland; the Nile resembles Van Gogh’s final, suicidal wheat fields. Human endeavour acquires a Sisyphus-like quality, made bearable only through things like flowers and the sun, and particularly by the sunflower that Van Gogh himself had famously painted. This brings with it “the memory of a boundless field, a spring of water, Van Gogh to one side painting the big flower which opens up towards the sun, the light emanating from inside it, as if it were itself a little sun”.
The story ends with the narrator walking from his house to the Nile before sunset, waiting on the bridge until “Cairo’s noise returns”, and throwing away a cigarette-end that symbolises all the hidden torments of summer.
“Flowers of the Sun” represents in condensed form many of the narrative features of the collection. Events are few and insignificant, while Rakha is able to orchestrate a variety of images and symbols in subtly repetitive patterns, and it is the movement of these as they interact that testifies to the author’s skill, giving him a distinctive voice of his own. The narrator moves from a domain of darkness to one of light — or from cold to warmth, death to life — with the business of living invariably triumphing in the end. That said, one is reminded that such a movement takes place only in the realm of imagination. It is a desire that forever seeks fulfilment without the certainty of ever achieving it.
Reviewed by Ibrahim Fathi