Friday, 28 September 2012

Harold Pinter: A Night Out



A Night Out is an early play by Harold Pinter. Like his other early plays, namely The Birthday Party and The Hothouse, it’s about the psychological destruction of a person.
I could have reviewed The Birthday Party, which is certainly more famous, but that play just looks too much like a Harold Pinter play. As I read the first volume of Pinter’s plays, it became clear to me that the author had a propensity for writing the same play over and over. Generally his early plays are about emotionally stunted individuals, often elderly couples, living in seedy rooms, confronted with something strange, ominous, or threatening. The Room, A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter belong to a group that a critic once defined as “comedy of menace.” They are variations on The Birthday Party, which, don’t get me wrong, is a great play. But in my mind they all sort of blend into the same text.

After these plays Pinter came wrote The Hothouse, a play definitely not set in a seedy room inhabited by old people who. The Hothouse is a satirical allegory of bureaucracy set in an unnamed institution that works for the government, an institution whose purpose is vague but full of foreboding. Pinter forgot the play and only came back to it in 1980. Still I think it changed Pinter a little bit, it was a transitional work for him because he stopped writing about elderly couples in seedy rooms.

His next play, A Night Out, produced in 1960, opens one night when Albert Stokes, a “young man of twenty-eight,” still living with his widowed mother, is searching for a tie to go out to a party. He asks his mother to help him, but she’s upset that he’s going out. She’s a good mother: she irons his clothes, she cooks his food, she counsels him. And Albert is clearly fed up of her. With a few quick strokes Pinter paints a protagonist being smothered by tyrannical motherly tenderness. This is a fascinating play. It’s not a matter of being better than his other plays, it just has a different tone, more ambition, it’s more grounded in realism. His previous plays had a homogenous tone from start to finish. This play is looser, messier; the sets change between apartment rooms to street scenes, from coffee stalls to crowded parties. It has fifteen characters (that’s almost the twice The Hothouse’s). All in all, it’s a livelier play. And it’s no less darker.

Although Pinter is often associated with the Theater of the Absurd, this play is very naturalistic. The dialogue has the rhythms and repetitions of ordinary speech (gone is the barrage of questions that Goldberg and McCann use as a torture instrument against Stanley in The Birthday Party); Pinter’s ability to make prosaic dialogue enchanting, however, is still present. The action is less mysterious and symbolic. It’s really a fine slice of life. Gone too is the absurdist humor, replaced with an encompassing sense of despair and powerlessness.

Albert, the protagonist of A Night Out, is a prisoner. And his life, at least for this night, is hell. First of all, he argues with his over-protective, suffocating mother, an old lady who uses her age and vulnerability to keep Albert in her thrall. Things get worse when Albert, already a touchy person, is accused at the party of groping a female coworker. The play ends with Albert taking out all his bottled up anger, resentment, and social deficiencies on a woman, a prostitute who invites him to her room and treats him like his mother does.

Pinter’s economy is commendable. As soon as the play starts, the conflict is set. His mother, watching him neatly dressed in his best suit, suspects he’s going out. She may have deliberately misplaced Albert’s tie; feigning innocent ignorance, she worries about his dinner getting cold and asks him to go and change a light bulb. Albert repeats again and again that he’s going out. There’s a cognitive disconnect between them because she continues to speak to him as if he’s not going out. Albert doesn’t want to change the light bulb in the cellar because he’ll get his suit dirty. His mother keeps at it:

Mother: Well, your dinner’ll be ready soon. You can look for it afterwards. Lay the table, there’s a good boy.
Albert: Why should I look for it afterwards? You know where it is now.
Mother: You’ve got five minutes. Go down to the cellar, Albert, get a bulb and put it in Grandma’s room, go on.

This short exchange contains a lot of information. See her establishing schedules for him (“You’ve got five minutes”), her calling him a good boy, treating him like a child, and showing dependence on him. It becomes obvious she has him under her thumb. As the play progresses the reader also realizes that because of her over-bearing personality, Albert has trouble connecting with other people. There are several scenes that show how she controls Albert and humiliates him with subtle innocence. This is when he’s preparing to leave:

Mother: Albert! Wait a minute. Where’s your handkerchief?
Albert: What handkerchief?
Mother: You haven’t got a handkerchief in your breast pocket.
Albert: That doesn’t matter, does it?
Mother: Doesn’t matter? I should say it does matter. Just a minute. Here you are. A nice clean one. You mustn’t let me down, you know. You’ve got to be properly dressed. Your father was always properly dressed. You’d never see him out without a handkerchief in his breast pocket. He always looked like a gentleman.

Poor Albert is always failing to reach the standards she’s imposed for him. Before when Albert said he was going out, she feigned surprise even though he had reminded her that she knew: “I told you last week,” he says. “I told you this morning too.” In a subtle scene that shows how Albert prefers to placate his mother rather than facing her, he back-pedals on his words. “I’m just going to Mr. King’s,” he says. Mr. King is Albert’s boss. His mother considers Mr. King a respectable man. In a sense he’s not really going out, he’s just attending a party given by a person that, in his mother’s scale of values, is good, and therefore safe.

The mother is a great character, by the way. Although Pinter’s style is often noted for its sparseness of dialogue (punctuated by many pauses), there are also powerful monologues in his plays. Albert’s mother gives a good one packed with accusations and emotional blackmail that chip away at his dignity but come wrapped in the deceitful language of tenderness. It’s an ironic speech because she repeats expressions like “I won’t even ask any questions,” “I’m not saying any more,” “Yes, I don’t say anything, do I?” over a speech that last three pages! One gets a feeling of how much of this Albert must listen every day, all day.

But in spite of her concerns that Albert isn’t leading a ‘clean life,’ that he’s ‘messing about with girls,’ Albert does go out. However she hangs over him like a malaise throughout the play; when he meets up with his friends, he feigns a headache to go back home, but he’s persuaded to come along. Albert doesn’t have many friends, apart from Seeley. People from the office also have a low opinion of Albert, physically and intellectually. His gloominess is a topic of conversation. This is part of a conversation Seeley is having with another guy from the office, while waiting for Albert:

Kedge: Of course, he don’t let much slip, does he, old Albert?
Seeley: No, not much.
Kedge: He’s a bit deep, isn’t he?
Seeley: Yes, he’s a bit deep.
Kedge: Secretive.
Seeley: What do you mean, secretive? What are you talking about?
Kedge: I was just saying he was secretive.
Seeley: What are you talking about? What do you mean, he’s secretive?
Kedge: You said yourself he was deep.
Seeley: I said he was deep. I didn’t say he was secretive!

Seeley is a friend to Albert. When he gets in trouble at the office for allegedly groping a woman, Seeley is the only one who defends him. The humiliation he feels at the party is a variation of the humiliation gets at home. His female co-workers pick on him and, realizing that he gets nervous talking about woman, ask him about his sex life. Then there’s Gidney. Gidney is a loud-mouth who likes to blow his own horn, especially about his intelligence and physique, a man who fancies himself a professional cricket player just because he belongs to the firm’s team. “I was saying, with my qualifications I could go anywhere. I could go anywhere and be anything,” he tells Albert. Like Albert’s mother, Gidney enjoys belittling him.

Then comes the incident. As Mr. King is giving a speech about Mr. Ryan, the old man retiring from the firm, Eileen, one of the office girls, screams in panic:

Gidney: What is it?
Adlib: What’s happened? Eileen, what’s the matter?
Eileen: Someone’s touched me!
Joyce: Touched you?
Eileen: Someone touched me! Someone–!
Betty: What did he do?
Kedge: Touched you? What did he do?
Joyce: What did he do, Eileen?
Eileen: He… he… he took a liberty!
Kedge: Go on! Who did?

Eileen looks at Albert, who doesn’t understand what’s going on, and the crowd instantly turns against him, accusing him without evidence. Gidney demands that Albert apologize. Taking Eileen’s side immediately he just uses the situation to place himself in a position of power over Albert, who chooses to leave instead of prolonging the conflict. Gidney follows him outside, demanding an apology to Eileen:

Albert: Gidney, why don’t you… why don’t you get back to the party?
Gidney: I was telling you, Albert–
Albert: Stokes.
Gidney: I was telling you, Albert, that if you’re going to behave like a boy of ten in mixed company–
Albert: I told you my name’s Stokes!
Gidney: Don’t be childish, Albert.

Again Albert is likened to a child. Ironically, Albert shows more maturity in trying to avoid a scene by leaving, even if that means losing face, whereas Gidney continues to provoke him into a fight. When Gidney accuses him of being a ‘mother’s boy’ Albert flips and a short scuffle ensues, with Seeley trying to break the two apart.

As I read the play for the third time, I realized that the hostility against Albert is just because he seems strange. It’s like his meek, introspective personality compels others to treat him with contempt and aggressiveness. He’s overtly vulnerable, making himself a target. This, anyway, is a topic frequently explored by Pinter. His protagonists, one way or another, are always victims of hostile forces that seek to destroy them, physically or mentally, or both.

The play reaches its climax when a woman picks up Albert in the street and takes him to her flat. But her obsessive behavior also drives Albert crazy: she worries about the noise of his footsteps, about the ash he’s leaving on the carpet, about his rude language, about his fidgeting with objects. Suddenly all the abuse, humiliation and control Albert has endured throughout the night (throughout his life) spills out in a violent but pathetic outburst; pathetic because rather than freeing himself, he just perpetuates the cycle of emotional abuse; he achieves nothing more than humiliating a woman and frightening her with a story that he killed his own mother. The sexual menace is always present, but more than sex it’s the power over her that drives him on.

Thinking now, after my third reading of the play, the ending of A Night Out is similar to The Birthday Party, in two ways. First, both plays deal with protagonists who can’t overcome the external forces that control them, whether they be the mysterious duo of Goldberg and McCann or Albert’s mother. In The Birthday Party, Stanely, driven mad by these two men, attempts to rape Lulu, a woman who liked him. Albert terrifies a woman to make himself feel powerful. Secondly, Stanley is led away by the two men, whose purposes are suspiciously sinister; Albert returns home for his mother to continue belittling him. Stanley and Albert are both captives. Albert changes from prey to predator, but in the end he never stops being a prey.

However I wasn’t thinking of The Birthday Party when I reread this play, but of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. Comparisons between the two authors are inevitable. They’re contemporaries whose careers started practically at the same time. Both playwrights belong to the Theater of the Absurd. Both plays in question are about ordinary, complacent men, wrested out of their ordinary lives; who clash head-on with the irrationality of human relationships; who come out defeated in power struggles with other people. Pinter, more than Albee, is a poet of the downtrodden, of the emotionally stunted. From the darkest corners of the human soul, where despair resides, he takes out images and words that chronicle with brutal honesty modern man’s losing battle with society, others and his own self.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Luigi Pirandello: Six Characters in Search of an Author



Why do you have to be so small-minded and pick everything to pieces! You’re destroying the miracle, for that’s what it is! Reality itself kindled into life, conjured up, brought into being by the scene itself and drawn towards it, with more rights to life in this place than you have. She has more truth than you have!

How many plays does a playwright have to write to become influential? I asked myself this after reading Oneworld’s edition of Luigi Pirandello’s plays, because, influence aside, I don’t think, after reading the thirteen plays in the collection, that he wrote many good ones. Who’s ever heard of A Woman in Search of Herself, Caps and Bells, Honest as Can Be? Prior to reading them, I hadn’t; and afterwards I wished I had remained in ignorance thereof. Oneworld’s edition is edifying if nothing else: no reader will finish it with his idea of Pirandello unaltered. Who would have guessed that the great innovator, iconoclast, father of meta-theatre and precursor of the theatre of the absurd was in fact a scribbler of formally conservative and boring domestic melodramas lacking in sagacity, wit, vitality and urgency?

Pirandello’s reputation today lingers on a trio of plays written between 1921 and 1930 and commonly known as the “theatre in the theatre” trilogy, composed of Each in His Own Way, Tonight We Improvise and the most famous of them, Six Characters in Search of an Author. (Another great play by him is Henry IV, which dramatizes concepts of illusion, reality and fantasy; a play that still feels very modern.)

It’s always curious how the perception and appreciation of a literary work changes with time. When Six Characters in Search of an Author was staged in 1921, it was booed by the audience, denounced as the work of a lunatic, and Luigi Pirandello, the author, had to run away from the room. Today it is considered one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. In 1925 Pirandello added a clarifying preface to the text which today sounds awkward and pointless: Pirandello’s innovative techniques have permeated the fabric of contemporary to such an absolute degree that the modern reader doesn’t need Pirandello to explain what is now commonplace techniques to him. Fictional characters aware of their own fictionality and constant references to the audience watching the play hardly befuddle spectators when you consider that Edward Albee, arguably the greatest living playwright, for instance, has written several plays – The Lady from Dubuque, Lolita, The Play About the Baby, Occupant – that tear apart the veil between performance and illusion, break down the fourth wall and have the characters directly engaging the audience with retorts and questions, and who speak different lines in the text depending on the replies from the spectators. Pirandello’s price to pay for having changed the 20th century theatre is that his innovations were so attractive that they seem like they’ve been there all along. These few plays also gave him an aura of mystique that is boggling to someone who’s had to endure the saccharine banality of Lazarus and Think it over, Giacomino!

What is it about Six Characters in Search of an Author that makes it such a powerful play?

The play opens with a Producer, a group of actors and other people involved in theatre, rehearsing Luigi Pirandello’s play The Rules of the Game. An actor objects to the idea of having to wear a chef’s hat for his role; it’s ridiculous, he says. “Ridiculous, is it?” asks the Producer. “You find it ridiculous! And what do you suggest? Can I help it if we can’t get hold of good French plays any more so that now we’re reduced to putting on plays by Pirandello? Nice stuff if you can understand it, but designed it would seem to get up the noses of actors… and critics… and audiences!” Pirandello pokes fun at himself while engaging in a self-referencing game that has become the bread and butter of theatre. Truth be said, this technique is at least as old as Don Quixote, but to better appreciate the importance of its re-emergence it’s necessary to remember that during the 19th century realism rose as the de facto aesthetic school of thought thanks to Balzac, Zola and, in theatre, Ibsen. Pirandello was rebelling against a way of conceiving literature that was on its death throes but didn’t know it yet. James Joyce hadn’t even published Ulysses yet, the apogee of the realistic novel, one that captured the present moment with as little dramatisation as possible. Apart from this play, Pirandello wasn’t very interested in fantasy, but more in illusion, in the unreality of things, in blurring fact and fiction, making theatre, make-believe by nature, a unique vehicle for his ideas. For all that, though, it’s debatable how far he was ready to take his ideas. His play Tonight We Improvise doesn’t really do any improvising. In the Italian Commedia dell’Arte there was the lazzo, an improvised routine or dialogue which had many permutations and could be altered from performance to performance. Dario Fo has incorporated this technique in his own plays, which can be called truly improvisational and open works, being constantly re-written and updated. In light of them, Pirandello’s rigidity fails to impress. It’s more like he’s putting an act, pretending to be avant-garde without bothering to be.

Pirandello, however, had more than just self-referential tricks to offer. When six fictional characters wander onto the stage they turn everything upside down. The creations of an author who didn’t write a play for them, they live with their drama inside them waiting for an author to write them a play to let them bring life to the stories they were born for. Their drama is about a father who sends his wife away to live with the woman she loved. Years later she returns to him, with several children; but their son, who meanwhile had been sent to live with another family and returned after his mother had left, resents his mother’s return. One of the climaxes of this drama is when the father, a patroniser of brothels, has an awkward meeting with his stepdaughter who had gone to work in one to help pay her mother’s bills. Their story then is a big, sensational, old-fashioned family tragedy in which the sins of the father pass down to the children and ends with a little girl drowning and the boy committing suicide. Moralistic to the point of parody, if one removed the meta-theatrical frame narrative it’d be more in line with Pirandello’s typical plays. Even when he was innovating he couldn’t veer too far from who he was.

The Producer, initially reluctant to believe their story and claim that they’re fictional characters, nevertheless finds the story interesting and agrees to help them write a play. Complications arise, however, when the characters live out their dramas for the actors who will play them in the real play. When the actors try to play them, however, they come off as false and wooden. Pirandello here introduces an interesting point about theatre: all theatre is fantasy not matter how much verisimilitude it tries to achieve. Perhaps he’s saying theatre will never be as real as real life and shouldn’t try to be when it can do things real life can’t.

What is real and what is fantasy? For Pirandello, the characters are more real than the actors who play their dramas, for the characters were created like that. “A character, my dear sir,” says the Father, “may always ask a man who he is. Because a character really does have a life of his own, stamped with his own characteristics which ensure that he is always who he is. While a man – I don’t mean you in particular, but a man in general, can very easily be ‘no one.’”

Producer: That’s good! Now tell me that you and this play of yours are more real and true than I am!
Father: Of that there can be no doubt at all.
Producer: Is that so?
Father: I thought you had understood that all along.
Producer: You are more real than me?
Father: If your reality can change from one day to the next…
Producer: Of course it does! That’s obvious! It’s always changing. Everybody’s is.
Father: But not ours! Not ours, do you see? That’s the difference! It doesn’t change, it can’t change, it can never be any different, ever, because it’s fixed, as it is, once and for all. We are stuck with it, sir, and therein lies the horror; stuck with an immutable reality. You should find our presence chilling.

When they perform their life stories, they’re expressing the only truth they know, their own essence. When the actors play them, they filter their lives through the conventions of theatre. One point the Producer brings up is censorship and how standards of decency establish the limits of what can be realistically portrayed on stage. Real life, he explains to the Stepdaughter, can’t be shown on stage because the audiences wouldn’t tolerate it with all its ugliness and incoherence. The actors instinctively replace the rawness of a brothel scene, which is emotionally devastating to the Father and Stepdaughter, with comical lightness. Today everything is permitted on the stage and the scene would have been staged as is. The curious thing, though, is that loosening of moral standards and censorship were probably more necessary for Ibsen or G.B. Shaw than for Pirandello, whose plays, truth be said, were wholesome for the most part.

Although I think Pirandello’s importance and greatness need some deflating to do, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Six Characters in Search of an Author, one of his few really brilliant plays. He does in it an excellent job of dismantling many notions of theatre and his touch is visible in Beckett, Ionesco, Albee, Havel, Fo and Pinter. But the pleasure of returning to his work is not as strong as in his descendants.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Edward Albee: The Zoo Story




Spoilers for Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story

Loneliness and the madness of loneliness. The meek, enduring reader and the acerbic, pushy suicide. The impossibility of communication between men. The failure of a man to communicate with a dog. The deadly duel for the ownership of a park bench. The story of a man totally unfit for living with human beings. The calculated plan to bring an ordinary man to a state of imbecility. The unfinished story of what happened at the zoo. Of course I’m talking about Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story.

Although playwrights Dario Fo and Václav Havel supply me with the political exposés I love, I seek in Edward Albee the insights about those intimate and strange details that constitute our personalities, public and private. Fo and Havel work in the public sphere of denunciation: the evils of capitalism and communism, the way religion and bureaucracy become political instruments to enforce power and status quo, the need to resist, and if resistance is impossible, to ridicule the enemy. Albee prefers to take head on the whole of humanity in his plays. That’s not to say Fo and Havel don’t write great plays, literature of the highest calibre. Perhaps Albee could never write Accidental Death of an Anarchist or The Memorandum. But then again, Fo and Havel never created characters like Peter and Jerry.

Peter is a middle-aged family man working in publishing who sits on the same bench in Central Park every Sunday afternoon to read in peace. On this particular day, Jerry, a man in his thirties, shows up and slowly proceeds to disrupt Peter’s simple life with this ominous sentence, “I’ve been to the zoo. I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!” The theme of lack of communication is established in this first line, when Jerry has to shout at Peter to get his attention. Peter either doesn’t listen to him or politely ignores him. The bench is his personal retreat from his life and family. Jerry, however, insists until he gets his attention, that is to say, captures him in his inescapable net of insanity.

Peter, far more passive than the rude and in-your-face Jerry, submits to his talk, or rather intrusive inquiries into his life. He just wants to talk, he explains to Peter, “really talk; like to get to know somebody; know all about him.” But they don’t talk. Jerry harasses him with personal questions. Jerry, we quickly understand, lacks social skills or whatever we call those essential skills to not really say what we want to say all the time. He tests the patience of Peter, who, it must be said, puts up with him. Jerry doesn’t have that inhibition that prevents people from saying the truth all the time. Perhaps that’s inaccurate, since we can’t be sure if half the things he says are true or made up. What he lacks is the ability to be courteous. Having an interlocutor who is full frontal is problematic if he happens to be deeply disturbed. In life we like to say that we appreciate honesty, that we like direct people. In truth we like manners. Usually people who say what goes on in their mind are called rude or inconsiderate. Consider for instance Jerry’s thoughts about Peter smoking a pipe, as soon as the two meet:

Jerry: Well, boy; you’re not going to get lung cancer, are you?
Peter: No, sir. Not from this.
Jerry: No, sir. What you’ll probably get is cancer of the mouth, and then you’ll have to wear one of those things Freud wore after they took one whole side of his jaw away.

His interrogation gets even more personal and abrasive: about Peter’s family, his sexual habits, his income. Tricked by his own politeness and lack of assertiveness to impose his will on Jerry, Peter has no option but to endure his increasingly-personal questions:

Jerry: I bet you’ve got a TV, uh?
Peter: Why yes, we have two; one for the children.
Jerry: You’re married!
Peter: Why, certainly.
Jerry: It isn’t a law, for God’s sake.
Peter: No, no, of course not.
Jerry: And you have a wife.
Peter: Yes!

It’s obvious that they’re talking but not really communicating. His inquiries continue:

Jerry: And you have children.
Peter: Yes; two.
Jerry: Boys?
Peter: No, girls… both girls.
Jerry: But you wanted boys.
Peter: Well… naturally, every man wants a son, but…

Peter manages to lamely reply to Jerry that his personal life is “none of your business” but Jerry’s too calm and too much in control to let Peter upset him. He’s like a predator in search of a prey and Peter is it. And although Jerry repeats to Peter that he’s free to walk away if he doesn’t want to talk to him, Peter stays seated. After dissecting Peter’s home life he proceeds to tell him about himself, of his life in a seedy apartment in a building full of wretched characters. The details are too many to post here but Peter concisely defines them like this: “It’s so… unthinkable. I find it hard to believe that people such as that really are.” “It’s for reading about, isn’t it?” Jerry sarcastically quips.

Peter is a book person, an innocent. I won’t say he leads a sheltered life because I always find that insulting to ordinary people, of which I’m one after all. It’s a simple fact that people have a right, and a need, to live sheltered lives, if that means not liking to be bothered by lunatics like Jerry. A sheltered life always presupposes the arrogant view that people benefit from being exposed to evil, violence, sordidness and madness. It’s like saying people should feel bad about wanting to lead orderly, peaceful lives. So let’s say Peter is innocent, he’s polite, he seems contended, and that’s very good. Those traits make him vulnerable to Jerry, who wants a spectator to listen to his story, the THE STORY OF JERRY AND THE DOG! Jerry has a habit of shouting his lines.

In this long monologue Jerry describes his attempts at first befriending and then killing a dog that lives in his apartment building and that chases him every time it seems him come in, a “black monster of a beast.” According to Jerry, the dog is an anomaly because “animals are indifferent to me… like people.” But this dog can’t leave him alone and chases him every time he enters the building but never when he goes out. “That’s funny,” he says. “Or, it was funny. I could pack up and live in the street for all the dog cared.” First Jerry tries to suborn the dog with hamburgers. When that fails, he tries to poison him. Although he also fails at this, he achieves a small success. After the dog recovered, every time they met, they always “made contact.”

Jerry: Now, here is what I wanted to happen: I loved the dog now; and I wanted him to love me. I had tried to love, and I had tried to kill, and both had been unsuccessful by themselves. I hoped… and I don’t really know why I expected the dog to understand anything, much less my motivations… I hoped that the dog would understand.

We never know if the dog understands him. Probably not. The whole monologue is worth reading not just for the way is depicts a sad and pathetic mind in the process of peering into itself but also because of the dark humour it contains. Most of the humour is of a special nature, arising from Jerry’s inability to realise what a ridiculous person he is. Although he speaks very outrageous things, there’s no hint of irony in his words. Jerry is too earnest and literal-minded to realise the absurdity in his words. Consider for instance this simple exchange:

Peter: Now you listen to me. I’ve put up with you all afternoon.
Jerry: Not really.
Peter: LONG ENOUGH!

The humour here comes from the fact that Jerry doesn’t read ‘all afternoon’ as one normally would, meaning “an extended amount of time,” but literally as the whole period from the first to the last minute of an afternoon, if that can even be quantified.

Jerry is a master at reprogramming Peter. One of his methods is talking to Peter calmly, as if to a child, seldom losing his patience, but showing strength when he needs to reprimand him. Another method is the silly sequence when he starts tickling Peter after he threatens to go home. The tickling is silly enough, causing Peter to become afflicted with a laughing fit. But more interesting is Peter’s threat itself; that’s just the type of experience we remember from our childhood, isn’t it? The boy who packs up his toys and leaves because he doesn’t want to play anymore. This must be the most primitive of desires when a person faces a danger, to run back to the safety of home. In a way, Jerry has already managed to turn Peter into a child.

But Jerry’s triumph is when he manages to bring Peter down to his own savage, aggressive level. After tickling Peter and leaving him receptive to another story, about “what happened at the zoo,” Peter again misses a chance to assert his will. As Jerry starts telling it, he also starts shoving Peter off his bench until Peter is on the far end of it. “I want this bench,” Jerry says. “You go sit on the bench over there, and if you’re good I’ll tell you the rest of the story.” Just as if addressing a child. Peter, finally fed up, stubbornly decides to fight for the bench, leading into the play’s tragic ending. “Defend yourself,” Jerry urges him; “defend your bench.” It’s not just a bench, it has become Peter’s life, his sense of normalcy, his self-respect. Albee does a great job showing how people imbue the most insignificant things with significance, and also how they share territorialism with animals.

The Zoo Story, as I see it in my latest reading, is about the destruction of two men: Jerry, physically, since he dies at the end, impaled on a knife he gives to Peter; and Peter, mentally, who becomes involved in the dangerous life of Jerry. Or as Jerry puts it in his hour of success, “Do you know how ridiculous you look now?” This italicised now isn’t innocent; it implies that this was Jerry’s plan all along and that he’s won, he’s succeeded in turning Peter, an ordinary man, into an idiot.

It wasn’t until my third reading of the play that I realised that Jerry’s monologue foreshadows their final confrontation. In the same way that Jerry battled with the dog over the apartment building, he now fights Peter for control of a park bench. Like with the dog, Jerry tried to establish contact with Peter. And in both cases he failed. Why he throws himself against the knife is never explained. Does he want to die because he has nothing to live for? Or is his death necessary to educate Peter, to “open up his eyes?” Is it a sacrifice? Jerry’s last words are “Oh… my… God,” uttered in scorn (according to the stage directions, not my interpretation), perhaps in mockery of Christ, who died on the cross for all men. Or was Jerry just a lunatic who caused needless mental anguish to a victim?

Written in 1958 in three weeks, rejected by New York producers, and originally staged in Berlin in 1959, The Zoo Story is Edward Albee’s first play. Readers who know Albee only from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? can’t appreciate how this first play already contains so many of his themes, preoccupations and situations: the conflict between a domineering and a submissive personality; the use of animal metaphors for the human condition; the impossibility of communication, the intrusion of the absurd in the quotidian; and my personal favourite, the reduction of adults to hysterical infantile states. Albee’s won three Pulitzer Prizes, making him the most awarded American playwright after Eugene O’Neill. He was again nominated for the Pulitzer in 2001 and 2003. And his last play, Me, Myself and I (2007), is another surprising work about twins, sexuality and identity. Although after having read his entire work I can say that he has a few weak plays here and there, he’s a master playwright who’s only gotten better with time. Plays like Seascape, The Lady from Dubuque and The Play about the Baby are delightful fantasies on stage, more nightmare than dream though. Those who only know Edward Albee from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? don’t know what they’re missing.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Borges on Kafka, Shakespeare, Joyce and the expressionists


Here’s another dialogue Jorge Luis Borges had with Osvaldo Ferrari for Buenos Aires’ Radio Municipal. The dialogue is titled “Kafka puede ser parte de la memoria humana” (Kafka may be part of human memory). Borges is telling Ferrari that he’s going to France to deliver a lecture to the French Academy on Franz Kafka. Ferrari asks him to elaborate on what he’s going to say:

What I’m going to mention, in Kafka’s case, is that if we read other great writers, we must continually do what they call make allowances in English – I don’t know quite what to call it in Spanish –, we have to think: well, this was written in such time, we must take many things into consideration. For instance, let us use the supreme example, which would be Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s case, you have to think that he was not always writing for a select audience; that it had to last, well, what we now call ‘five acts,’ although it was rather a continuous extension. Right, a certain extension of time, and, besides that, he acted, he had to use as a starting point plots that were traditional, foreign to him. And then he had to fit his characters in those plots, and sometimes you notice the dissonance. For instance, I believe in Hamlet, but I’m not sure I believe… making an effort I can believe in Hamlet’s ghost. But I’m not sure I believe in the court of Denmark and the intrigues; I don’t think so. In Macbeth’s case, I believe in Macbeth, I believe in Lady Macbeth; I’m ready to believe in the Fates – who are also witches –, but I’m not sure I believe in the fable. Well, that would be an example. And we have to relatively think about every writer: they wrote in such time, in such conditions; we have to situate them in the history of literature. And so we can, well, forgive or not mind certain things. However, in Kafka’s case, I think Kafka can be read beyond his historical circumstances. And we see two, which are very important: Kafka produces a good amount of his work during the war of fourteen. One of the most terrible wars ever – he must have suffered it a lot. Furthermore, he was a Jew, anti-Semitism was already on the rise. He lived in Austria, well, in Bohemia, which was part of Austria then. Died in Berlin, I think. All those circumstances, of living in a besieged country, in a country that was winner at first and loser in the end. All of that should have resonated throughout his work, and yet, if the reader didn’t know it he wouldn’t notice it; for it was all transmuted by Kafka. And then another fact, rarer still: Kafka was a personal friend of the expressionists. The expressionists led the most important aesthetic movement of this century; much more interesting than surrealism, or cubism, or mere futurism, than imagism. Well, it was a kind of total renovation of the arts. Of painting too; let’s think of Ernst Barlach or in Kokoschka, or the others. Kafka was their friend, they wrote; they were continuously renovating language, weaving metaphors. One could say the supreme work of expressionism was the work of Joyce, although he didn’t belong to this group and didn’t write in German, but in English; or in his English, which is a different English – an English made solely of composite words. Well, we have those two facts: expressionism, a great literary movement, and Kafka published in one of the two magazines – not sure if in Die Aktion or in Sturm – which were two expressionist magazines. I subscribed to them at the time, I mean the year 1916, 1917. At that time I read a text by Kafka for the first time; I was so insensitive that it simply seemed very soft, a bit anodyne, for I was surrounded by all sorts of verbal splendours from the expressionists. Well, you don’t notice any of that, that is, Kafka would end up being the great classical writer of our tormented century. And possibly will be read in the future and one will not know very well that he wrote at the beginning of the 20th century, that he was a contemporary of expressionism, a contemporary of the First World War. All of that can be forgotten: his work could be anonymous, and maybe, with time, it deserves to be. It’s what a work most aspires to be, isn’t it? Well, and that only a few books have achieved.

And now Borges’ claim that Kafka’s work already belongs in mankind’s memory:

Now, in Kafka’s case, possibly those fables of his already are part of men’s memory. And it could happen with them what could happen with Don Quixote, let us say: all copies of Don Quixote could be lost, in Spanish or in the translations; you could lose them all, but the figure of Don Quixote is already part of mankind’s memory. I think that the idea of a terrible, growing, infinite trial that becomes the basis of his novels which, of course, Kafka didn’t want published because he knew that they were incomplete, that they had the duty to be infinite… well, The Castle, The Trial can be part of human memory and rewritten with different names, in diverse circumstances; but Kafka’s work is already part of mankind’s memory.

Ferrari then asks him what writers Kafka is closer to and Borges makes a fine point about the simplicity of Kafka’s language:

Well, perhaps Henry James is closer to him. Proust I don’t think would have interested him and Joyce absolutely nothing because Joyce corresponds to expressionism, that is, to the idea of art, well, as passionate, but also verbal. I mean: in Joyce’s case the important thing is each line. Well, Kafka lived surrounded by people who were, or tried to be, Joyce, without knowing him, of course. And yet what Kafka writes… he writes in a very simple German. So simple that I, who was studying German, managed to understand him. And other authors gave me a lot of work; the expressionists, for instance: Johannes Becher, whom I admire very much, who became for me the greatest expressionist. Well, I didn’t understand Becher, and what’s worst, I couldn’t feel at all what I was reading through the verbal games.

Borges is not the only writer to notice the simplicity of Kafka's writing. Milan Kundera has an excellent essay called "A Sentence" included in Testaments Betrayed and which addresses how translators of Kafka try to 'improve' his writing by replacing common verbs with more florid ones.

This dialogue certainly doesn’t exhaust everything Borges has to say about Kafka, about whom he wrote a lot. But I like it a lot because it offers many insights into the work of Kafka and what Borges thought of it.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Farewell to Africa Reading Challenge



Back in January I joined Kinna’s Africa Reading Challenge. The challenge was relatively easy: to read at least five books written by African writers. I read a lot more than that every year. Contrary to the difficulties I read other bloggers have about finding African books in bookstores, Portuguese bookstores tend to be well-stocked with them, with African writers from Portuguese-speaking countries anyway. Rare is the store that doesn’t have a section devoted to Pepetela or Mia Couto. They and others are household names, popular and always making it to the bestseller charts. So five books? Easy.

The list I initially put up was:

Yaka, Pepetela (Angola)
O Planalto e a Estepe, Pepetela (Angola)
O Fio das Missangas, Mia Couto (Mozambique)
A Conjura, José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola)
The Island, Athol Fugard (South Africa)

My plans changed a lot, however, and I ended up reading only two of those. Kinna made some suggestions that I tried to take into consideration. I read books from several parts of Africa:

Angola (Southwest)
Cape Verde (West)
Egypt (North)
Mozambique (Southeast)
Nigeria (West)

I read books in three languages: Arab, English and Portuguese.

Instead of five I read nine books, just so I wouldn’t look lazy, which I am: Luuanda, The Return of the Water Spirit, A Dance of the Forests, Children of the Alley, The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo, Voices Made Night, as well as O Fio das Missangas, Jesusalém and A Conjura, untranslated so far. I tried several genres: a play, novels and novellas, and short-story collections.

One of the many good things about ARC is that it encouraged me to try out writers I had been meaning to read for some time now but kept postponing them for another time. For instance Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira, whose novellas were a great surprise to me. Another author I read because of ARC was the Cape Verdean writer Germano Almeida. I can’t say I loved his novel but I’ll keep reading him until I find something more enjoyable. Others like Naguib Mahfouz and Pepetela were old acquaintances Overall, I was happy with the books I read. Alas, I didn’t read any female writers. I did, however, write about the Angolan poet Ana Paula Tavares, even if I didn’t officially include her in the challenge. But she was another writer ARC encouraged me to read.

If I focused a lot on Angola it’s because it’s one of the most productive African countries in terms of literature. That its writers are so under-translated into English is a shame and a loss to fans of good literature.

Well, nine books are enough for me. That’s not to say I’m done with African books this years, but it’s time to say farewell to Africa Reading Challenge. I’d just like to say thank you to Kinna for the good moments it provided me.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Wole Soyinka: A Dance of the Forests



My final review for the Africa Reading Challenge:

You are a learned man and I would appreciate an opportunity to discuss the historical implications of this… mutiny… if one can really call it that… We were so near to the greatness of Troy and Greece… I mean this is war as it should be fought… over nothing… do you not agree?

A Dance of the Forests premiered in 1960 during the celebrations of Nigeria’s independence from the British Empire, and it is the first play Wole Soyinka wrote and also the first of his plays that I read. It’s a challenging but also rewarding play with none of the flaws and excesses one expects from a young writer. The tone is not the one of a novice but of a wise writer who has spent a lot of time thinking about the great issues of human existence.

This is also a remarkably unusual play: it draws copiously from Yoruba religion – half the characters are either spirits or gods – and it juxtaposes a mythical glorious African past with a prescient vision of a corrupt post-colonialist society. On top of that, it’s a dense text, with careful attention to form, with a slow drip of information. I had to re-read some passages a few times to properly grasp what was going on. After a re-read recently, I’m still not sure I fully understand it. The play is filled with observations about religion, tradition, history, honour, freedom, forgiveness, courage, love. And it mixes dialogue with poetry, acting with dancing. Was young Soyinka ambitious? Oh yes.

The Human Community is celebrating the Gathering of the Tribes and has requested the presence of illustrious dead people from their past, the ‘builders of empires’ and descendants of their ‘great nobility’ in order to celebrate all that is ‘noble in our nation.’ But things don’t go according to plan. “We asked for statesmen and we were sent executioners,” a human complains. The spirits send two restless souls to the surface, a Dead Man and a Dead Woman, victims of this same glorious past, to confront the descendents of their killers. Those descendants are Rola, a prostitute rumoured to have led two lovers to kill themselves over her, Demoke, a murderous carver who made a totem for the feast but also offended Eshuoro (a Trickster spirit in the Yoruba religion), and Adenebi, a corrupt clerk. Guiding those three through a magic-filled dreamscape is the gentle, patient Obaneji (in fact Forest Head, the father of the gods) for a reckoning with the gods and the spirits.

My first impression of the novel was how little it had to do with the 20th century tradition. I find no marks of Pirandello, Beckett, Ionesco, Albee or Pinter in this play, neither the absurd nor the realistic drama. Instead it harkens back to A Midsummer’s Night Dream and the ancient Greek plays because of the way the gods interfere with the mortals’ lives and how debts of murder pass from generation to generation to be collected by spirits.

The world of this play is one of rituals, traditions and where the spiritual exists in everything. Demoke, for instance, has carved the sacred tree araba into a totem; araba is the symbol of Eshuoro. Demoke was afraid of heights, so he carved the tree only up to a certain height and then decided to cut down the top. His apprentice, a follower of Eshuoro, climbed up above his master in provocation, so Demoke pulled him down to his death. Now he’s doubly guilty of murder and offending a spirit. Like him, the other two mortals are running away from guilt.

In a play where the spiritual and the material interweave so freely anything can happen. The forest is a magical place where the laws of time are suspended. This gives the author freedom to pursue some interesting experiments with the play’s form. For instance, at one point Forest Head shows a spirit a scene from the past; this interruption of the main plot acts as a play within the play; but there’s a continuity between the events depicted in the past and the ones happening in the present. This also allows the actors to star in multiple roles.

In this play within the play, the reader is brought to Mata Kharibu’s ancient kingdom, where a soldier (the Dead Man) refuses to fight in an unjust war. The war has started over a trifle. Mata Kharibu, having stolen the woman of another man (like Helen of Troy, to which the play directly alludes), now decides that the slighted man must return her wardrobe to her. When he refuses, Mata Kharibu declares war. The soldier’s refusal introduces a new idea in the world: he’s thought for himself and decided that he doesn’t want to serve an unjust master. He’s dangerous because the germ of freedom may contaminate the other soldiers, loyal to him. The woman is Madame Tortoise (the ancestor of Rola). In the court we find also the Court Poet (Demoke – he remains an artist throughout history, it seems) and the Historian (Adenebi), who finds no precedent for the soldier’s crime. Madame Tortoise tries to seduce the soldier into killing Mata Kharibu and sharing the power with her, but he refuses. So he’s punished for his moral convictions, along with his wife (the Dead Woman).

History repeats itself in the present; it’s no wonder Rola says “this whole family business sickens me. Let everybody lead their own lives.” The author is perhaps warning against the danger of historical amnesia; the creation of a new nation, with its promises of freedom, can look like a clean start, but, he warns, it is important to understand the past in order to forge a better future, lest the new beginning, contaminated by the errors of the past, leads to nowhere. Those who like to seek new knowledge outside what was prescribed by the school text books know that an educational system always paints a country’s past in a better light than reality. Writers, by their typical position of questioning, work to wrest us from the harmful complacency of nostalgia.

Consider. Demoke in the present kills a follower of Eshuoro; the Court Poet implicitly throws off the roof a novice vying for the attentions of Madame Tortoise. In the past, the rebellious soldier is sold to a slave-dealer, along with 65 soldiers loyal to him, with the help of the corrupt Historian. In the present, Adenebi reacts nervously when Obaneji relates an incident involving a bus that burned down with 65 people in it: the bus could only contain 40 people, but the owner had bribed a clerk to declare the bus fit to take in 70, so when a fire broke out inside the overcrowded bus, nicknamed Incinerator, there were only five survivors. Obaneji, disguised as tolerant court clerk, wonders if Adenebi might know the corrupt clerk involved:

Obaneji: You see, I want to close my files on this particular lorry – the Incinerator. And my records won’t be complete unless I have the name of the man who did it – you know, the one who took the bribe. Do you think you can help me there?
Adenebi: Since you are so clever and so knowledgeable, why don’t you find that out yourself?
Obaneji: Please… it is only for the sake of records…
Adenebi: Then to hell with your records. Have you no feeling for those who died? Are you just an insensitive, inhuman block?

This roundabout way of implying facts is one of the aspects I enjoyed the most from the play. Adenebi’s moral indignation is also astute piece of psychological insight: shifting the blame from himself to Adenebi; he probably didn’t even think any harm would come from the bribe; it’s Obaneji who’s at fault for wanting to know the truth, who’s cruel for wanting to understand. This rationalization is amusing to me because it’s so pervasive in daily life that most people don’t even notice it. I know I’ve thought like Adenebi a few times. This is a small but fine example of the power of fiction: to make obvious these important little human ticks that we like to ignore about ourselves.

It’s impressive that Soyinka wrote this play when he was twenty-six-years old: it’s a mature text, both in content and form; Soyinka already shows a developed sense of life full of humanity, of wisdom, of mocking compassion for the follies of people, and peppered with dark humour. May I be this wise when I’m an old man!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

José Eduardo Agualusa



And yet another review for Africa Reading Challenge:

Angola. I keep returning to it in this challenge. First I reviewed Luandino Vieira’s Luuanda, then Pepetela’s The Return of the Water Spirit. Obviously I felt an obligation to review the third great name in contemporary Angolan literature: José Eduardo Agualusa. Born in 1960, he’s the author of a vast oeuvre that includes novels, short-stories, travelogues, children’s books, poetry and theatre.

Perhaps I always return to Angola because of all African Portuguese-speaking countries, not only does Angola have the biggest literary production but it has also met the most success with translations. Agualusa himself won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007 for his novel The Book of Chameleons. When I say success with translations, however, I mean he’s been lucky enough to have four of his books translated into English. His winning the prize is a good example that prizes and awards do little for foreign writers in English-speaking countries. Since then only two more novels have been translated. Agualusa is likely as forgotten as Pepetela, whose best novels have not yet seen English translations, much to the loss of lovers of good literature.

The novel I’m reviewing, his first novel, isn’t available in English. It’s called A Conjura (1989), literally The Plot. It’s a historical novel set in the final decades of the 19th century and continuing beyond the regicide of the Portuguese king in 1908 and the proclamation of the Republic in 1910, an event that Angolan nationalists hoped would result in their country’s own independence. It didn’t. It was a period in Angola’s history when the country’s southern territories were at war with the colonial authorities. It was the time of the Berlin Conference, Portugal’s disastrous dispute with Great Britain over the Pink Map, and the British Ultimatum to Portugal. It was a time when Angola was an underdeveloped backwater where the metropolis dumped its undesirables, much in the way England used Australia. It was a colony that lacked hospitals, schools, roads, trains. Progress wasn’t exactly in the colonial administrators’ minds. “What we need to do is sell alcohol and intrigues to the blacks,” a despicable official declares after arriving in the country and noticing that blacks and mulattos enjoy too many privileges for his liking. There were several class and racial divisions within society, first and second class citizens, with the blacks and mulattos nevertheless being allowed to join public administration. Under the circumstances it’s not surprising thoughts of sedition germinated. What the novel does is capture the first rumors of revolution and secret conspiracies to arouse the wretched masses against their European masters. The plot of the title comes from the plans orchestrated by a secret society that meets and discusses at Jerónimo Caninguili’s barbershop, in clear imitation of the fabled salons where the free thinkers who organized the French Revolution met.

Freshly arrived in Luanda, the gentle and peaceful Caninguili, familiar nevertheless with the anarchist ideas of Peter Kropotkin and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, permits his barbershop to be turned into a club of ideas patronized by Angolan nationalists, businessmen, men of letters and journalists. “The themes went from the usual political and commercial questions to the arts and literatures, and to the unraveling of the latest mundane rumours, always huge and delicious.” Around this barbershop a cast of character orbits that gives the novel much of its life, incidents and anecdotes, for this is, in spite of everything, a comical novel.

Through the dreams, hopes and actions of the characters the author paints a vivid picture of a society divided between those who want to maintain their ties with Portugal and those who sneer at their masters. “What’s the point of being equal to a miserable, illiterate and brutish people?” asks a nationalist to an Angolan calling himself a Portuguese. “And which pretends to civilize us by sending us the worst from its social gutters: thieves, murderers, prostitutes?”

But not every Angolan sees Portugal in this negative light, like César Augusto, a sixteen-year-old mulatto with a vocation for lyrical poetry, an immense love Camões and a propensity for extolling the civilizing enterprises of white men; hated by black men for his treasonous ideals and by the white for his exaggerated love for Portugal, he’s a symbol of a society in search of an identity. “César Augusto liked to imagine himself an ancient knight, in brave crusades in strange lands, defeating moors or rescuing damsels, leading formidable armies through Portugal’s savannahs. His heroes were Justiniano Padrel and Bessa Victor and he followed closely their repeated successes, vibrated with each victory, suffered with every predicament. When visited by the muses he produced epic sonnets which he then declaimed to the seagulls in the solitude of the beaches. At the time he worked at Mr. Antoninho’s pharmacy, and he impatiently waited for his eighteenth birthday so he could enlist in the army and follow a career in the military.”

Justiniano Padrel and Bessa were military heroes of the time, famous for their roles in quelling the revolts in the southern part of the country. Many references are made to real life people, including the famous Portuguese explorer Serpa Pinto, who journeyed across Africa and wrote the travelling classic How I Crossed Africa (1880). As the news of the uprisings in the south grow, however, voices like César Augusto’s disappear from the narrative and the secret Society tries to set in motions a revolution. Anyone who has read my previous reviews of Luandino Vieira and Pepetela, however, knows that Angola didn’t become independent until 1975, so the reader can guess how well their plans fared. Because their lack of money, volunteers and weapons – although some are generously offered by Brazil, which had become a Republic a few decades before – and because the country hasn’t reached that point where it’s willing to rise as one. That will have to wait.

Luandino Vieira wrote very well of the Angola of the Estado Novo dictatorship, which was the Angola of his time, and Pepetela has done a magnificent job chronicling the changes in post-independence Angolan society. Ondjaki, whom I’ve written about elsewhere, has written what it was like to grow up in a communist Angola. This is all relatively recent history. But I liked the way Agualusa’s novel concerned itself with history. I like how this novel revealed a new nuance about this country. The author rediscovered history and brought it to life. It’s sometimes hard to know, let alone imagine, that anything of important or interesting was going on in a colony at the turn of the last century. This is one of the merits of literature, to fight this historical and cultural amnesia. For that reason A Conjura is very much worth reading. And perhaps translating too.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Naguib Mahfouz: Children of the Alley



Another entry for Africa Reading Challenge.

Children of the Alley is the sixth novel I’ve read by Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz is a novelist who, in general, I like to read. One thing I’ve noticed about him is his versatility. I’ve not yet read two novels by him that looked alike or that had the same style. Naguib Mahfouz was born in 1911 and died in 2006. He had a long career that allowed him to hop from genre to genre and to reinvent himself many times. The first novel I read was Arabian Nights and Days (1981), a companion and homage to the great Arab classic One Thousand and One Nights, or, as it’s better known in the English-speaking world, The Arabian Nights. It’s a work of fantasy, full of spirits, genies, magic and strange events. Due to my weakness for fantasy and magical realism, it remains my favourite novel by him. Next I read Midaq Alley (1947), written in a completely different register from the whimsical opulence of the other: instead it was a realistic novel about the denizens of a seedy Cairo alley thriving with crime, drugs, prostitution and frustrated dreams. It was another great novel. After that merciless portrait of Egyptian society I moved to Wedding Song (1981 – two novels in the same year?), a more intimate story of a family strife between parents and sons, told from four different perspectives, and with an unexpected but beautiful ending. Morning and Evening Talk (1987) was a strange novel that I didn’t like very much – it’s a family saga that spans two centuries of Egyptian history, from Napoleon’s invasions in the 18th century to our times; but it’s organized like a dictionary, with the family members listed in alphabetical order, completely rendering any order or plot meaningless. It was an experiment but I’m not sure what it was trying to achieve. Daring and innovative, yes, but not very interesting. I preferred Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth (1985), a story about the enigmatic Egyptian ruler Akhenaten, a sort of pre-Jesus Christ figure who upset the order of the day by imposing adoration of a single God instead of the many Egyptian gods. The novel is intricately constructed, with a young scribe interviewing several of persons who knew Akhenaten and slowly building an idea of his personality from their testimonies.

Mahfouz’ passing away in 2006 prompted many new translations of his novels into Portuguese, including his masterpiece, the Cairo Trilogy. However, not certain a realist epic portrait of Egyptian society in the first half of the 20th century would be to my liking, not least of which because it runs over 1300 pages, I preferred to next try Children of the Alley. This novel has an interesting history: it was published in instalments in an Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Ahram (I suppose that explains why the chapters are so short – three to five pages at most), and then it was banned. It was only published in book form in Lebanon in 1967. After Mahfouz received the Nobel Prize in 1989, this book was used by religious fanatics to justify going after him, much like The Satanic Verses had given them an excuse to persecute Salman Rushdie in 1988. In 1994, Mahfouz was attacked and stabbed in the throat by fanatics.

Children of the Alley is an upsetting book, if you take religion too seriously. It’s an allegory about God and Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Mahfouz transposes God to the figure of Gabalawi, a rich proprietor living in the Big House, and the several branches of religion that emanate from him become neighbourhoods around his rich but impenetrable abode. The novel is divided in five sections: Adham (Adam), Gabal (Moses), Rifa’a (Jesus), Qasim (Mohammed), and the magician ‘Arafa, who symbolises science. Each section retells the legends of these four mythical figures and their recurring attempts to release the citizens of the neighbourhoods from the clutches of the futuwwat, the armed watchmen who keep the peace for the administrators, who steal and impose a reign of terror while the populace lives in fear and misery. Each one of the prophets vows to usher their people into a new era of love and prosperity and justice, and indeed for a while they succeed, while they live, then their work is left incomplete and a new futuwwat takes over and the cycle begins anew.

The book is narrated by a scribe who has witnessed the events of the era of ‘Arafa. The main theme that unites the five narratives is lack of memory. “The torment of our neighbourhood is precisely forgetfulness,” complains the narrator. All of the saviours become themes for the poets to sing to the sound of the musical instrument rebab, distorted through fiction. Only the narrator aims to give a sober account of the events.

Memory then is the great problem of the neighbourhoods built around Gabalawi’s Big House. The first section is about Adham, Gabalawi’s favourite son, chosen over Idris to rule the Waqf. Idris (or Satan, or Iblis as I discovered Lucifer is called in Islam) plots to have him cast out, much in the way the serpent tricked Adam and Eve into being expelled from the garden of Eden. Once expelled the brothers live next to each other, in perpetual hatred. Their children grow, and in time their progenitors build and populate the neighbours. With houses and populations and trade come administrators who charge taxes and rule through fear. And prophets and saviours emerge from the wretched.

A novel that tackles the big questions of mankind – memory, justice, God – should, however, be more interesting than Children of the Alley ends up being. The problem with the novel is that it’s predictable if one is reasonably familiar with the Bible and Islam. At one point I stopped caring abut the plot. What I found more interesting was how Mahfouz operates a process of synthesis and parallels: it was curious how Adham and Idris are brothers who already prefigure the Cain/Abel conflict, that makes so much sense. But at the same time Adham is also Job here, accepting his misfortunate in silence and without blaming Gabalawi when everyone else hates him. I also appreciated how the author transfigures some of the saviours based on a particular episode of their lives: Gabal becomes a snake charmer, no doubt because of the famous staff that turns into a serpent; and Rifa’a practices exorcism, an idea obviously inspired by Jesus healing a man from the demon called Legion. The novel also follows an interesting pattern:

Adham: peace
Gabal: violence
Rifa’a: peace
Qasim: violence

‘Arafa, the magician and inventor, also wants to liberate his people, and he believes in peace, but he’s also the man who invents explosives. Rather than freeing people, he becomes an instrument of the administrator in furthering their oppression. And what can the reader make of the fact that the novel ends with ‘Arafa’s friend looking for his notebook of inventions in a heap of garbage? Is the author saying, with no much subdued irony, that our hopes about science have ended up in the waste dump? God allegedly died over a century ago, but science hasn’t delivered the utopia promised by futurists like H.G. Wells.

All, excepting Adham, think history will end with them, that after them force and violence will never be necessary anymore. Like the narrator says, the problem here is one of memory. But perhaps it’s not just memory, it’s wilfully wishing to ignore the facts, a refusal to accept the world as it is, a much needed belief that the world can be improved, even if experience tends to prove otherwise. 

This is the novel’s most original idea. No matter how many prophets, nothing ever changes. Mahfouz’s great idea is to condense the thousand or so years that go from the writing of Genesis (circa 6th century BCE) to the The Koran (7th century CE) into a handful of human generations, making the forgetfulness more apprehensive. This way the history of three religions can boil down to just a few sentences: there is a people suffering injustice, oppression and misery; a saviour arrives claiming to save the people; he doesn’t save anyone; he dies; his followers continue his work of not saving anyone. No wonder this novel upset people.

Still, a few good ideas aside, I didn’t like this novel very much, mainly because it was a bit dull. It started well enough. In fact after Germano Almeida’s novel I was riveted by it. But my enthusiasm died down after the Gabal section. It became too predictable. It was the most disappointing novel since Morning and Evening Talk. Things didn’t get interesting again until ‘Arafa’s section. Since he’s the only that doesn’t have a parallel with the holy books, Mahfouz was free to turn him into a more surprising figure. A curious man, magician, inventor, plans to enter the Big House and steal Gabalawi’s book, which he thinks contains magic spells. He invents explosive bottles that a tyrant uses to enslave his population. He’s not the final saviour, even if ‘Arafa saw himself as one, like the others did before him. But in time he too becomes a myth to be sung by poets in hashish joints and the neighbourhood returns to its normalcy of tyranny and misery.

I wouldn’t recommend this novel as a first book for anyone interested in Naguib Mahfouz. Perhaps Arabian Nights and Days or Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth are better introductions to an otherwise exceptional writer.