A Curiosity: Andrew Madigan on Naguib Mahfouz’s Before the Throne

Before the Throne, Naguib Mahfouz, trans. Raymond Stock, American University in Cairo Press, 2009

First published as Amam al-’arsh in 1983, Before the Throne is a story of Egypt’s past, an allegory about its leaders and the ethics of leadership. Nearly 60 of the nation’s former rulers, from the obscure to the world-famous, from 3000 BCE to the 1980s, are called before a tribunal. They are to be judged by the Gods Osiris, Isis and Horus, while Thoth, Scribe of the Gods, records the proceedings. Those who are deemed worthy, who served the best interests of the people, will be granted immortality.

Mahfouz’s method is to bring Egypt’s rulers, who are otherwise seen as demigods, down to smaller, human proportions by placing them before Gods. Through this juxtaposition, we’re supposed to see them more clearly and honestly rather than being overwhelmed by their fame and majesty. King Menes, who originally unified the nation and cultivated its strengths, is the first to be called. The Gods debate his strengths and weaknesses as a leader and as a moral being:

“You reaped one hundred thousand of the Libyans’ lives,” Osiris reproached him.
“They were the aggressors, My Lord,” said Menes in his own defense.
“And of the Egyptians, northerners and southerners combined, two hundred thousand fell as well,” Osiris reminded him.
“They sacrificed themselves for the sake of our nation’s unity,” said Menes.
“Then security and peace reigned over all, while the blood that had regularly been shed in periodic fighting ceased to flow into the waters of the Nile.”
“Could you not win the people over with words before resorting to the sword?” asked Osiris. (3)

This process is repeated, with little variation, throughout the book. Egypt’s rulers must answer for their decisions, without the excuse of expediency, executive privilege or personal glory. This is an intrinsically complex task, however. Menes sums up the difficulty with this project of accountability: “‘Thoth, your sacred scribbler, has condensed my life in words….How easy is the telling, and how hard was the doing!’” (2).

Most of the rulers are judged leniently and given a favorable judgment. Raymond Stock, the novel’s translator, writes: “only those who serve that great national ka–according to Mahfouz’s own strict criteria–are worthy of his praise and a seat among the immortals” Afterword 152). The “national ka” refers to Egypt’s identity and glory; Mahfouz’s criteria, which isn’t altogether strict, amounts in some cases to imperialism and national strength. Most of the country’s rulers are acquitted of their crimes. The ones who aren’t, curiously, are often judged in large groups and given very little space in the text to account for themselves. Chapter 31, for instance, is the trial of Ramesses IV-XII; nine rulers are sent to Purgatory with only a half-page of analysis, and Chapter 9 sees six kings condemned to Hell with only one page of discussion.

Before the Throne is a dialogue, though it’s not a work of philosophy. In an interview, Mahfouz claimed that it was a work of history, but this is not defensible (Afterword 145). We learn bits and scraps about Egypt and its past, but the book lacks the objectivity, thoroughness, attention to detail, academic rigor, and of course the basic verisimilitude of History (the putative tribunal, for instance, is not factual). Before the Throne recalls the work of Diderot more than anything else; fiction is used as a canvas for thinly-dramatized vignettes relating to non-fictional events and ideas. It’s an intriguing book, a curiosity, but ultimately it would have been better if it were either more fictionalized or more dedicated to History, Philosophy or some other discipline. As it stands, the book is didactic, heavy-handed and repetitive, though it does offer, like an epic poem, a selective and concise summary of the Egyptian past.

Most of It: Andrew Madigan on So That You Can Know Me: An Anthology of Pakistani Women Writers

So That You Can Know Me: An Anthology of Pakistani Women Writers, Eds. Yasmin Hammed & Asif Aslam Farrakhi, Garnet

So That You Can Know Me: the title says it all, or rather most of it. The stories in this collection betray a self-conscious and, at times, a relentless wish to make themselves heard and understood. Most of the selections describe a society–a husband, a teacher, a superior–that doesn’t want to listen. The stories are small, intimate and local, things whispered across the kitchen table. Featuring translations from Punjabi, Pushto, Urdu, Sindhi and Seraiki, this book was published in cooperation with UNESCO in their “Collection of Representative Literary Works.” According to the UNESCO website, this series was launched in 1948 as the result of a recommendation by the UN General Assembly at its first meeting two years earlier. Its mission is to “encourage and facilitate translation of the great works of different countries into the languages that are most widely spoken. It hopes in this way to contribute to mutual understanding between peoples…” (1).

What ties these stories together, aside from gender and nationality? First, the natural world is ubiquitous; the pages are filled with images of plants, animals and farming. Two, the focus is on simple village life. There are no computer programmers or graphic designers here; no one drives a car or pays $5 for a coffee. Third, much of the action is set in the home, which recalls the 19th-century domestic romance of European and American literature.

The fourth and most significant common thread is that that, in so many of these stories, the main character has an intense feeling of isolation, alienation and despair. She, or sometimes he, is suffocating in a rigid community that allows no deviation from the common path. The people are actors who must speak every line as scripted; ad libs and improvisation are forbidden. They live in a solipsistic world of anger, confusion and fear. Moreover, the characters’ inner world has a sharp affect on the style and structure of the stories. The writing often reads more like a lyric poem than short fiction. The narrative arcs tend to flat-line: there is often no beginning, middle and end; no rising and falling action. There doesn’t tend to be much dialogue. Instead, the writers concentrate on first-person narration and interior monologue with an emphasis on the main characters’ emotional, psychological and spiritual conflicts.

These characters find themselves in predicaments similar to those of early modernism. Take “The Poison of Loneliness” by Musarrat Kalanchvi (the title alone evokes the movement’s existential dread):

He knew that he was searching for something. His feelings were innocent and his sentiments pure. He had a simple heart full of longing. In spite of so many possessions he was marooned by a sense of deprivation. A moment of sadness engulfed his whole being. Immersed in a sea of loneliness he felt himself drowning. Something was choking him; he could not comprehend this feeling. He could not resist letting out a loud cry and this cry shook everything around him. He felt as if his blazing tears and sighs were burning everything… (16)

Like Jakes Barnes, like Vladimir and Estragon, this character is searching for something that will not be found. In “The Cow” Firdous Haider offers another Godot-like passage: “She kept on waiting. But everything was still; loneliness and restlessness persisted” (39). There is no anomie in his society, however, no devaluation of values, no lack of consensus regarding God, meaning, purpose. There is faith in the possibility of faith. In this story, and others, the crisis of modernism has been inverted. The main character has changed while society remains the same. In this sense, many of the characters in this collection are related to Sarty, the sometime-narrator of Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” who has evolved far beyond his parochial surroundings. He is the catalyst for change in a place of stasis, tradition and normalcy. The wasteland is not out in the world, but rather inside the character himself.

The greatest strength of this collection lies in the small significant details, the concrete images that, like shadows in a Platonic cave, allow fiction to pass for reality. In “The Magic Flower,” for example, Parveen Malik describes a destitute mother cutting wheat with a sickle. Her infant daughter lies under a tree in a knapsack. The mother “gave her a grain of opium to ensure the child would sleep” (27).

The preponderance of local color is also one of the book’s flaws. Many of the pieces seem to have been chosen because they tell, or seem to tell, the story of real, ordinary, downtrodden Pakistani women; quality, sophistication, variety and originality don’t seem to have been the primary criteria. The stories are meant to be representative, which is consistent with UNESCO’s mission statement, though only the underclass is genuinely represented. The opening line of “The Magic Flower” summarizes the collection: “Sakina was born into an extremely poor family” (27). “Descent” is similarly bleak and straightforward about the country’s economic conditions: “Their good looks had gone: poverty had snatched what little charm youth had lent” (Mumtaz Shirin, 54).

There are a few middle-class professionals here, but their stories are nearly identical to those of the poverty-stricken characters from the rest of the collection. “Paper Money” is about a writer, but he lives in a haunted house near a banana grove. We don’t learn about writing, writers, the literary community or the educated classes; he could have been a fruit vendor or a bicycle repairman. One of the stories is set in England, but the writer makes it feel like a Pakistani village: “Seated in that Birmingham apartment, Sikandar and Hirnam Singh talked for hours about crops, oxen and milk-producing buffaloes” (Bano Qudsia, “Many Faces of Truth,” 158). Pakistan is largely a poor, rural country, but that’s only one part of the story; it would have been nice to hear the others.

The characters, incidents and concerns, within these fictions, are quite familiar, expected, sometimes stereotypical. Fathers, husbands, teachers–and sometimes women–are cruel and bloodthirsty, while the women, children and servants are victimized. The search for peace, happiness and money is a common theme. The search is invariably futile, but for some the implausible dream is its own reward. In “The Coach,” for instance, the main character is mesmerized by a magazine picture of a magnificent carriage in front of a golden palace. He “lost himself in the beauty and glitter of the wheels” (Nilofar Iqbal, 23). The image is briefly comforting, though soon he will return to a father who beats him to the verge of death.

There are moments of innovation, quick excursions into fantasy, surrealism, stream-of-consciousness. On the whole, though, there is a sameness. Some of the pieces are only sketches while others are short stories in the commonly accepted sense. The plight of the disenfranchised is often handled with nuance and skill, but the collection would be more engaging and vibrant if the writing displayed a greater variety of themes, characters and settings. The work in So That You Can Know Me often fails to distinguish itself from other post-colonial traditions, especially those of the Subcontinent and the Arabian Gulf. The stories in The Literature of Modern Arabia (Ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, 1988) come to mind. The settings are often vivid and textured, but only in a localized sense: we can visualize the community but we rarely get the sense of a particular city or country.

The first story, “Munni Bibi Goes to the Fair,” owes a great deal to Joyce’s “Araby.” A young girl dreams of going to the local fair, but when she finally gets there she finds nothing but darkness and disappointment. The story ends with violence and disillusionment. This appropriation of Joyce shows us that the writers aren’t mere village innocents, despite what the stories themselves might suggest, but rather astute modern women who live in a country that isn’t entirely modern. Live might be the wrong verb. It isn’t clear whether the authors live in Pakistan, are from Pakistan, or are of Pakistani descent. It would have been useful if the editor had included an Introduction in order to provide a framework within which to better understand the stories.

In any event, the allusion to “Araby,” and other inter-textual references, tells us that the writers are familiar with the Western canon, which they’ve adapted to their own experience, something writers from all cultures have done and continue to do. At the turn of the 19th century, American authors such as Charles Brockden Brown and William Hill Brown were struggling to shape a distinctly national literature that was separate from its Europe and England antecedents, but they found themselves continually shoved back towards their influences. The result was a series of novels that weren’t independent or separate, but rather dialectic and interconnected: a dialogue with Continental fiction, a nasty argument with the English novel. The writers in this collection have found themselves in the same place.

So That You Can Know Me is, at times, amateurish, derivative and melodramatic. The prose is occasionally stilted as well, but perhaps these are only small crimes. The stories are filled with promise and passion, and the small significant details are sometimes impeccable. This collection is a welcome change of pace from what you find in American literary journals–tales of air-conditioned ennui, the fiction of comfort, works of suburban disgruntlement–that have been polished so vigorously, by teams of highly-trained workshop professionals, that you forget how dull they really are.

Work Cited
UNESCO. “UNESCO Collection of Representative Literary Works.” 30 September 1955. 10 September 2009

THE NOVEL, NOT THE SANDWICH: Andrew Madigan on Mark Sarvas’ Harry, Revised

Harry, Revised, Mark Sarvas, Bloomsbury

The first line of Harry, Revised is both memorable and poignant: “Harry Rent used to fiddle with his wedding ring, now he fiddles with the space it has left behind” (1). This is an epigram, of sorts, for the novel, which is a comic interpretation of the classic love triangle: a man, a woman, and the negative space of their dead relationship.

One of the pleasures of this book is the way Sarvas conjoins, with an unshaking hand, high and low culture, the sacred and profane. His protagonist considers the Monte Cristo sandwich:

He imagines it to be some promotional tie-in from Dumas’s day, which gets it wrong by about a hundred years. But he does know the story of the count, of the man falsely imprisoned who reinvents himself and exacts revenge on those who wronged him. That he knows it largely through the Mr. Magoo cartoon and the Classics Illustrated comic book does nothing to dim his enthusiasm. (12)

Sarvas knows the story too, for it’s also the story of Harry Rent, a sort of nebbishy Henry Chinaski with a medical degree. Harry, Revised is a recreation of Monte Cristo (the novel, not the sandwich). As the story progresses, often rushing forward then pedaling backward in time, we discover that Harry is insecure about marrying above his station, both socio-economically and aesthetically. He grows jealous and insecure about his beautiful, elegant, tasteful, well-connected wife, whose mother seems to despise him. The wife, Anna, has plenty of her own insecurities, but Harry is too afraid and self-absorbed to notice. Instead of talking it out, he visits prostitutes, renting a few moments of happiness.

Harry Rent desperately needs an ontological make-over, and the author provides one. In the second act, Sarvas addresses this transformation. After reading just “a hundred or so pages” (107) of Dumas, Harry begins to change from a quivering coward into a man of action,

He’s taken the first steps toward distancing himself from the Harry Rent who cowered before hookers. And although it’s a mere sliver that divides them, it has the potential to become a chasm, a chasm that he increasingly desires to have yawning between the two Harrys. (108)

Harry Rent is troubled, broken, bumbling, hapless, bowel-spasmodic, insecure, weak, chronically self-abusing, difficult and possibly imbecilic. He’s a wrong-foot specialist of the highest order, but he’s not unlikable. An antihero, yes, but he’s no Meursault: you’d invite him to brunch and maybe even introduce him to your mother.

Though largely interior, following the lopsided trajectory of Harry’s consciousness, the novel is not static or plotless. It’s clever, witty and well written. The plots keeps us guessing, but without gimmicks or contrivance. Sarvas knows how to conceal information and when to reveal it. The reader enjoys a sense of deferred gratification when the covert nuggets of plot are finally mined.

Sarvas’s ability to balance plot and character is matched by his ability to balance the comic and tragic. He’s the consummate acrobat, balancing so much without, ostensibly, breaking a sweat or ripping his unitard. Although Harry, Revised is largely comic, melancholy lurks behind Harry’s pratfalls and the author’s verbal wit. Sarvas has discovered the philosopher’s stone of contemporary fiction, a novel that is equally likeable and literary, sophisticated and slapstick.

This sense of balance eventually wears out, however. Though Sarvas is skilled at characterization, mood and plot, the reader may lose interest in Harry Rent. His picaresque antics are always amusing, but in the final quarter we don’t necessarily care what becomes of him. This is an intrinsic challenge with comedy. It’s hard enough to entertain the reader and to create humor in the two-dimensional world of fiction, but it’s exceedingly difficult to succeed with the comic mode while simultaneously sustaining the reader’s emotional attachment to the characters.