World Literature, Contrapuntal Literature May Hawas

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Accompanying the images and news of the protests were trans-border culture innovations and transmissions that in an ‘international’ era did not simply flow from one direction, whether east or west, to another. It helped that leading intellectuals of diverse resistance movements resided in Paris and London as much as they did in Alexandria, Delhi, Martinique, and Buenos Aires, and their works were quickly translated as the works (and their writers) travelled. Kundera himself, for example, writes of the Czech Writers’ Union, the alleged “hotbed of the counterrevolution”, inviting Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar in 1967 (The Curtain 81). He mentions reading Márquez for the first time in Czech translation (The Curtain 81), and reading, at the age of seventeen, Aimé Césaire in a “Czech avant-garde magazine” (The Curtain 157).

The Harlem Renaissance and Négritude movements, and Pan-Africanism, for example, coming on the heels of and embedded within the African American Civil Rights Movement, took place in the US, London and Paris as much as they did in Haiti, Martinique and South Africa early in the twentieth century. Black writers were quickly translated from English and French in countries around the world looking for inspiration for their own struggles. It is also well documented that writers made a point of making public appearances and speeches at international meetings and congresses, sometimes relocating entirely to the metropolis, such as black American writers who relocated to Paris including James Baldwin and Richard Wright, or the pan-African newspapers established by West Indian and Caribbean writers in London and Paris (Elizabeth).Yet the call for black rights also travelled to Arab countries such as Egypt. Leading African intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass had visited Egypt as early as 1887 in search of a pre-plantation African civilisation of symbolic significance to their cause, while Richard Wright, the first black writer of world fame, was quickly translated into Arabic. (This was, it must be remembered, at a time when the United States did not have as large a sphere of influence in North Africa and the Middle East as it does today).27 On the academic literary level in the early to mid-twentieth century the direction of intellectual ‘internationalism’ had already been set in motion in Europe and the US by the first major comparatists and scholars who for diverse reasons in their times and places had adopted, and adapted into criticism and literary history, an international ‘consciousness’ of the world (Damrosch 2006; D’haen 2012d). The ‘new international’ created by transportable images of populist or organised resistance movements within the reproducible model framework of the nation-state, transmitted via improved means of communication, increasing resettlement and migration, and quickly-forged international alliances was manifested in such cultural flows.

Hence, as enraged masses took to the streets in 1960s France, Germany, England, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia, they iconized for subsequent decades the counterculture and a revolution in social norms about war, clothing, music, drugs, dress, formalities and schooling. They also, however, echoed the footsteps, the slogans and the calls for freedom that had filtered into global public discourse through the media, music, art, and literature, and sometimes via visitors and immigrants, from distant connected places. When Ram in Beer in the Snooker Club remarks on the shock of the Suez war that “of course the Africans and Asians had had their Suezes a long time before us…over and over again” (58); or when he reflects that learning about “oppressed people in Africa and Asia and even some parts of Europe” taught him to see himself as a member of “humanity in general and not just as [an Egyptian]” (52-3) he refers to the urgent debate on worldwide political affairs that made the situations in these otherwise ‘distant’ cultures analogous, and could therefore make ideas of resistance ‘contagious’.

Fifty years on, a shared vision of multi-directional cultural impact seems muted, as has appeared, for example, in analyses of the mass protests in the Arabic-speaking world that have otherwise taken up quite a lot of news space in the past few years. With the rise of one mass protest after another starting 2010 in the Middle East and North Africa, the (as always transferrable) demonstrations and strikes were eventually dubbed ‘the Arab Spring’ by the international press in remembrance of the European Spring of Nations of 1848, and in adherence to the linear view of historical progress that only moves from ‘West’ to ‘East’. The front page of The Economist (June 29-July 5 2013) depicted precisely what this linear history was supposed to look like, dubbing it ‘The March of Protest’ (see below):

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In this clever design the figure of the French Marianne (caricatured from the Eugène Delacroix painting “Liberty Leading the People” (1830)) is followed by the 1968 protests in Europe and America, the Velvet Revolution in the USSR and finally ‘everywhere’(with signposts on the bottom pointing to Cairo, Istanbul and Rio). While this is a front cover and is in no way meant to stand in for in-depth historical-political analysis, the page captures the all too common lack of linkage between different parts of the world. Milan Kundera writes precisely with this view on the march of the ‘novel’s history’. Ghali, on the other hand, attempts to fill in the ellipses.

In Egypt, in the early phases of the January 25th Revolution (2011), Egyptian commentators had compared, if superficially, the protests rocking the Arab world to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. As more Egyptians became disillusioned with the period of chaos that followed it, the analogy quickly changed (if not quite appropriately) to the Prague Spring. As even more time went by, the phrase ‘Arab Spring’ was eagerly picked up by much of the Arab intelligentsia who appropriately amended their place in ‘world’ political history by taking it back a few centuries, and conjured new analogies with the French Revolution and the American Civil War (as appropriate). The connection between the people who protested in Prague in 1968 (originally simply asking for reform) and those who protested in 2010-11 in Tunisia and Egypt (also initially demanding reform), has been momentarily forgotten –tenuous and tentative as all such cultural connections can be.28 The link between those who protested the attack on Suez in 1956 and those who protested the Soviet occupation in Prague in 1968 remains even more distant.29

The reception and circulation of the two politically-emblematic novels under consideration, resonant as they are of the atmosphere of protest and people-power of the sixties, reflect the political tides and trends of the local and world markets in which they appeared. In Kundera’s case the many responses that chose to focus on the depiction of the Prague Spring in his work would later affect his writing directions to a noticeable degree. Ghali’s text, disregarded, forgotten or maligned in Egypt, was virtually unknown outside some very few English literature departments until quite recently (when it is now enjoying a comeback), which is a shame since it is not only well-written but quite unique (Enany 86), “in a class of its own” (Soueif and Massad 74), one of “the most penetrating novels in English on the Arab world” (S. Antonius 123), or, as Ahdaf Soueif puts it, “one of the best novels about Egypt ever written” (“Review” n.pag). The Anglo-Arab corpus has been until recently noticeably smaller than that of the Franco-Arab, and independent Egypt has never been blessed with freedom of expression, all of which, added to Ghali’s shady political background30 and his short life, helped push the novel to the sidelines.

Part and parcel of this reception has been the novel’s and the novelist’s links to Israel. The direct sympathy for the Israeli cause expressed in Beer in the Snooker Club might have fallen on more sympathetic ears a mere decade before the novel’s publication in 1964, particularly so since Ghali’s protagonist emphasises loss on both sides: “Imagine a third of our income being pumped into an army to fight a miserable two million Jews who were massacred something terrible in the last war. So what if ...[Nasser] becomes unpopular? He is strong enough to take unpopular steps. Besides, you know, we Egyptians don’t care one way or another about Israel” (202).

Earlier in the century such a statement might have been obvious to many Egyptians. Although it tends to be forgotten by both Egyptians and non-Egyptians, there had, after all, been palpable initial sympathy among Egyptians towards Zionism.31 Moreover, for Jews and non-Jews in Egypt before Suez and despite the 1948 war, there had yet appeared to be an automatic, generally-supposed and self-evident connection (even among the Jewish community itself) between the particular situation of the Jews of Egypt (or even of the Middle East) and the state of Israel.32 “It is important to remember that Sephardim, for example, who had lived in the Middle East and North Africa for millennia (often since before the Arab conquest), cannot be seen as simply eager to settle in Palestine and in many ways had to be ‘lured’ to Zion” (Shohat 46). Yet after Suez, and certainly by 1964 and onwards, a sympathetic stance such as Ghali’s would have been an alienating position to take. The Israeli/Arab wars had gone on for too long. The Western powers supporting Israel, notably Britain, France and also the US, and with whose imperialist rule Israel’s authority had become synonymous (particularly after Suez), had failed the peoples of the Middle East/ North Africa for too long. Nasser’s popularity was at its highest, especially after his ‘success’ in Suez, but generally for having given back the ‘Arabs’ their pride by his outspoken critique of ‘Western imperialists’. The keywords of the hour were socialism, anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism and anti-capitalism. Contrary to Ram’s assertion, that ‘we Egyptians don’t care one way or another about Israel’, the Egyptians, living under a politically-precarious State, whose sons were being sent out to fight in Palestine, who saw the Israeli issue as something that lay at the heart of the Arabs’ relationship with the Western coloniser, who could see dispossessed Palestinian refugees arriving among them, and whose sentiments had also been for some time subjected to the daily inflammatory propaganda of the media and of fascist organisations,33 appeared to care very much about Israel after all. Written in the language of the coloniser, sympathising with every type of community Nasser and many of his numerous cult-like followers had heckled, tortured, expelled, or resisted, and featuring a protagonist whose only pleasure seemed to be loafing about, Beer in the Snooker Club did not match any of the popular keywords.

Nevertheless, and in spite of the hostile political discourse surrounding it, there might still have been a chance even if only in the thriving underground scene for Beer in the Snooker Club had it not been for 1967. Three years after the novel was published the most debilitating defeat of the Arab armies (Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian) marks the moment when “a matter of six days”…propel[led] the Arabs into the Third World”. 1967 was the moment when “to be an Arab meant a sense of defeat, profound shock, and bewildering uncertainty” (Said Politics of Dispossession xiv). At such a time, when the Jewish population had been systematically expelled from the Middle East and North Africa, when for the first time in Egyptian modern history voluntary large-scale migration would rise noticeably among the remaining Egyptian citizens themselves (Amin), Ghali’s idealist imaginings would have been received with at least incredulity. The tide for the elitist, secular, liberal cosmopolitanism such as had been popular earlier in the century had turned. The flags of the populist Egyptian nationalist movement which in the 1919 protest marches against British occupation had been emblazoned with the image of an intertwined crescent, cross, and Star of David were decidedly a thing of the past.

In contrast, Beer in the Snooker Club received some success at the time of its publication in England, France and the United States, and a Hebrew translation appeared very early on in 1965. It helped not a little that the Jewish characters fit neatly into Zionist discourse down to the gender symbolism of the nation and the emasculation of the Jew in the Diaspora. While Edna is physically violated and her family’s possessions sequestered, Levy is deprived of the chance of a scholarly career in Arabic and supports himself by teaching (wealthy) Egyptians how to read and write Arabic because they suddenly needed to be able to master the language in Nasser’s Egypt. Meanwhile Edna’s husband is imprisoned, shot and permanently disabled, and so has to seek refuge in Israel. Such feminisation and victimisation of the Jewish people make foundational Israeli nation-building myths.

The book’s early international reception would enable Ghali to visit Israel as a reporter right after the Six Day War in 1967, ‘the only Egyptian allowed (voluntarily) into Israel for fifteen years’, as Ghali writes in his diary. His subsequent two Times articles (written from England) do not tend to acquit either camp, a position which eventually would result in his being publicly accused of having ‘defected to Israel’ by a representative of the Egyptian government in England (Diaries n.pag). Had he returned to Egypt Ghali would have been sent to jail or one of Nasser’s bulging concentration camps (Soueif “Goat Face” 11). A talk Ghali later gave on the BBC and some of the feverish entries in his diary mark a change in attitude, namely the understanding that there would be no peace settlement or compromise extended by fast-growing Israel. Ghali, however, prepped to some extent perhaps by his own circle of anti-Zionist Israeli activists in London including the likes of Shimon Tzabar, Michael Almaz and Aki Orr (see Diaries) seems to have retained hope in Oriental Jews to oppose what had by 1968 become a debilitating situation of polarities. The tally included: a continuously increasing number of dispossessed Palestinians in refugee camps in Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan; decades of occupation of and forced settlement on Palestinian/non-Israeli territory; decades of anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist behaviour in the Middle East and North Africa, in which the Arab nationalist movements had by now stopped making the vital difference between ‘Zionist’ and ‘Jew’; the dilemma of many Sephardim and ‘Oriental’ Jews who, even if they travelled to Israel would be inferior citizens within the Zionist state (Shohat “Sephardim in Israel”); and finally, the continuous inefficient and incapable handling of the Arab states of the Palestinian cause, not least by the political Palestinian representatives themselves (Said Politics of Dispossession).

Caught in the dialectics of what has become known (too) simply as ‘the Middle East crisis’, veiled with the mysteriousness of Ghali’s own life, Beer in the Snooker Club has until quite recently been fated to be more popular outside its ‘home’ soil, where it has often been read as a ‘historical period piece’, a diatribe against Nasser’s state, and an exemplary sample of a common kind of nostalgic Middle Eastern cosmopolitanism.34 A recent translation of Beer in the Snooker Club into Arabic appeared late in the Mubarak-era in 2006, marking the country’s normalised ties with the US and Israel, an ipso facto resignation towards the Palestinian situation, and a space for government critique (particularly if it was a previous government). From a cultural perspective the novel’s re-emergence may also indicate the emergence of new generations of readers whose battles are not those of the Nasser era, a growing space for new understandings of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that surpass the polarised depictions of the past,35 and enough elapse of time for collective community nostalgia towards ambiguous ‘earlier better eras’. The novel’s subsequent reprinting by Serpent’s Tail in 1986, a series of translations into about seven languages appearing over the past decade, and the novel’s frequent positive reviews and listings in university syllabuses in courses around the world reflect the widening market receptivity to ‘world’ and postcolonial literature. If Ghali had lived to write more, or if his biographer (in whose flat Ghali finally committed suicide in 1968) had published Ghali’s journals posthumously as the novelist had willed, perhaps the circulation of Beer in the Snooker Club would have taken a different route.36

In contrast, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (French and English editions 1984; Czech edition 1985), published when Kundera was already a known author, appeared at a time when there was great sympathy towards the occupied Soviet satellite states or, perhaps more precisely, great hostility towards the Soviet Union. Galvanising onto the bestseller lists in France, England and the US as soon as it was published, early reviewers praised the novel both from a Right and a Left-wing perspective; proponents of the first view approved Kundera’s condemnation of Sovietisation, those of the second opinion admired Kundera’s condemnation of mass cultural consumption and his early communist leanings, while both considered him a key activist for his work within the Czech Writer’s Union and the Prague Spring. Kundera was accorded a place within the community of Eastern European political émigrés taking refuge in France, and comparisons were quickly made to the great European masters (particularly those who had lived for a time in France) including Diderot, Sterne, Proust, Kafka, Beckett, T. S. Eliot and Orwell. It did not harm Kundera’s literary reputation that he acquired a cachet as handsome and brooding, noted early on in a trail of photos, book reviews and interviews and still referred to today.37 The Unbearable Lightness of Being has been translated into at least eleven languages, and was dramatised into a ‘major motion picture’ in 1988. Finding that the novel was persistently read within the context of Cold War politics,38 and finding himself at the same time continuously asked where he felt most ‘at home,’ or to whom he was writing, Kundera spent a number of years negating both that politics should be a literary yardstick or that he was an exile. He finally embarked on a media silence for twenty-five years, only broken briefly in 2008 to defend himself against new political allegations. The situation has helped aggravate his position among Czech artists and politicians who for diverse reasons and to various degrees consider The Unbearable Lightness of Being ‘unrealistic’ and Kundera as a political ‘sell-out’. Kundera was granted French citizenship in 1981. By 1991 scholarly discussions and reviews of Kundera emphasised his location as a ‘European’ writer, no regional tag included (Sanders), while book jacket blurbs often refer to him as a ‘Franco-Czech’ author. Over the past two decades Kundera has virtually eliminated reference to specific political events in his novels, has adopted French as his written language, and has manically supervised and edited translations of his novels into the languages he can speak for fear of misconstruction, yet The Unbearable Lightness of Being remains his most translated work, and Kundera’s “popular appeal, critical success, and moral authority…[remain] closely tied to his Czech background” (Sabatos 1841).

Whose ‘Testament Betrayed’?

Although the authors’ politics (assumed or real) and the political market have aided or hindered the circulation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Beer in the Snooker Club, both works rather ironically centre on their protagonists’ political freedom of choice and celebrate dissent from mainstream ideology.39 The love relationship is a common trope in narratives of national conditioning, not least because of what it reveals of the protagonist’s character as he ostensibly takes the first step to form a traditional prototype unit of the nation: the family. At times of perceived political crisis, popular concern about the basic symbols and mythologies of the ‘nation’ rises dramatically, with women –considered as “symbolic bearers of the collectivity’s identity and honour” (Yuval-Davis Gender & Nation 45), and being intimately related to matters of sexuality, reproduction and upbringing– coming to the forefront.40 Romance narratives then tend to be common metaphors for the process of national or social conditioning in novels worldwide.41

On a medical mission in a small town, Tomas, a doctor from Prague, meets Tereza, and from this coincidental encounter, love is born. Tereza follows Tomas to Prague, sleeps with him on the first date and eventually marries him. Caught in the turmoil of the Soviet occupation, Tereza and Tomas try to achieve marital happiness (if only Tomas would stop philandering or Tereza would stop minding about it) and political stability (if only the Czech nation would return to its rightful historical place in the centre of Europe). The novel is divided into seven parts, alternatively narrated by different narratorial voices that often act as counterpoint to each other, including an omniscient author-narrator (who sometimes addresses the reader directly), and the several third-person narrators of the four main characters: Tomas, Tereza, Franz and Sabina. The sections do not follow chronologically from each other, (the ending, for example, is revealed about two thirds of the way through the novel), and this, along with the obvious break from one section to another and clearly-indicated switch between points-of-view highlights Kundera’s preoccupation with experimentation in the novel form. The skill of The Unbearable Lightness of Being partly lies in this sometimes jarring combination: a deeply engaged political analysis and historical description of the events of 1960s Czechoslovakia is juxtaposed with the author’s voice reflecting on abstract philosophies and literary history and declaring that the whole work is a fictional art form.

In the love story Tereza stands as a symbol for the nation, and reflects the many ways women have figured in national discourse. Her chronic devotion to Tomas makes her “constitutionally unable to disobey” him, her unchangeability posits her as an Ideal tradition that should not be betrayed, her infant-like dependency on Tomas makes it necessary for him to rescue her, and her rootedness to a pristine countryside makes the latter place a refuge from the vicissitudes and corruption of the capital. If envisioned as a kind of ‘national narrative’ with the family (or the couple) at the centre, the role and figure of women stands as inherently “atavistic”, forever caught in an “anterior” time (McClintock “No Longer in Future Heaven”). In this setting, Tereza’s “anachronism”, as it is alluded to in the novel, is significant: mirroring the ideal ‘Bohemia’ or the ‘essence’ of the nation, she exists in the present only to seem strangely out of place. The choices Tomas must make towards Tereza (to marry or not to marry, to betray or not to betray, to save or not to save, etc.) are presented through the dualist binaries at the core of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one of which is weakness and strength. Tereza (as a supreme nation symbol) needs to be saved by Tomas (standing for the nation’s strong manly citizens), but must also be strong (distinctive, constant, appealing, etc.) enough to interest him (them) in the first place.

The recurring Judaic/Biblical metaphor of the child in the bulrush basket (6, 10, 203) first appears in the opening scene as Tomas stands by the window, thinking of whether or not to proceed with the affair with Tereza, and gains much of its potency from these binaries:

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