The two books are very different: One has a male protagonist, the other a female; one has a rather straightforward time sequence and “realistic” action, the other circles around and around until it ends with the characters becoming meta-characters, representing themselves; one takes place in Egypt and the UK, the other takes us between Egypt, Lebanon, and France:
And yet the echoes between Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club (1964) and Dominique Eddé’s Kite (2003, English trans. Ros Schwartz 2012) are significant enough to have pestered me these last few weeks.
Kite begins in Paris, but with a reminiscence of a Maged Fahmi’s house in Garden City, Cairo. It, like Snooker Club, follows a central character who is an insider-outsider, and one who bears a strange name. Although Mali doesn’t have Ram’s deliciously biting wit, she is a fantastically rich character, and both Mali and Ram find themselves unlucky in inter-religious love affairs, dragged along by history, struggling with their elitist upbringing, seemingly unable to accomplish anything that’s their own.
In Kite, three years after Egypt’s independence, Mali is visited by her young friend Huguette. The girl’s father, then-president of Lebanon Beshara el-Khoury, “brilliantly expounded on the country’s Arab identity. His wife…had fully agreed with him and concluded in impeccable French, ‘Our Arabness is indisputable.’
It is in part because of his “foreign” education that Ram becomes unmoored from his surroundings and cannot see Egypt-as-Egypt, but instead through the lens of English books and magazines. And for Mali, “…when she wrote Arabic, again it was a relentless struggle against the ghosts of the French translation. … The memory of the Roman letters hindered the rhythm and openness of the Arabic letters so that, horizontal or vertical, they came up with barriers not of their making.”
Edde’s book is more ruminative than Ghali’s, which gallops from one painful-hilarious encounter to another. No one gets pushed into a pool in Kite, although surely some characters deserve it.
Elsewhere, I wrote that Beer in the Snooker Club is “a ‘never-coming-of-age’ novel. Ram cannot hold a real job or marry the woman he loves. He cannot use his great and entertaining eloquence, and he finds it impossible to become part of the machinery grinding out his country’s future. The nation’s stagnation becomes Ram’s own, and leaves him stuck between past and possible Egypts. At the end of the book, Ram is unable to engage with anyone’s future, even his own.”
Mali, too, is unable to write the book about her mother’s life, to marry Farid, to join in with the machinery creating her two countries’ (Lebanon’s and Egypt’s) futures. Kite doesn’t pin History into the backbone of the novel; it is knit in a more kite-like fashion, which “has the right to go in any direction, to fly, to stop, slow down, eagle-dive, sail, change course, somersault, once, twice, three times, stop upside down, soar again and fly off in the sky, while an unseen hand holds the end of its string, that is a kite.”
Near the end of the book, Farid describes how Mali said, “I only respect political commitments that endanger our lives.” Of course, Ram would’ve said it differently, but surely such a thought would’ve flashed through his head.
Note: Kite, in its beautiful translation by Ros Schwartz, is longlisted for this year’s Best Translated Book Award.
Three Percent Blog: Why This Book Should Win: “Kite” by Dominique Eddé [BTBA 2013]
Asymptote Journal: An excerpt from Kite