Courrier International has publicized the list of ten finalists for the 2011 PCI, a “prix du meilleur livre étranger.” One of these books is translated by Edwige Lambert from the Arabic: Mohamed El-Bisatie’s La Faim (Hunger, جوع).
Hunger, which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009, is a book firmly in El-Bisatie’s (mostly) social realist tradition. It is his coming-home-to-the-village after his disappointing Drumbeat, published in 2006. With Drumbeat, El-Bisatie leapt into a fabulist world of an unnamed, larger-than-life Emirate. Wonderful premise, not-so-great execution. The best moments of Drumbeat are, as you might expect, when Egyptians remember their old lives in the village.
With Hunger, El-Bisatie goes back to the countryside, where his best works—like his classic Houses Behind the Trees, also translated by Denys Johnson-Davies—are set. Hunger was published in Arabic in 2007 and English in 2008; one assumes a close working relationship between Johnson-Davies and El-Bisatie.
In 1999, Denys Johnson-Davies, who has frequently translated El-Bisatie’s work into English, wrote about the novelist upon the issuance of his And the Train Comes. Johnson-Davies:
Though, like many of his contemporaries, he spent several early years of his working life in Saudi Arabia, he has not, like some of his fellow writers — one thinks in particular of say Ibrahim Abdul Meguid and Soliman Fayyad — drawn on his years of residence there for any of his writing. He has also not used his experience of life in Cairo. One sometimes feels that the area of Lake Manzala remains for him almost a place created by his own imagination as a writer, that it no longer has any meaning for him other than as the inkwell into which to dip his pen. It is surely significant that he has not once been back since, as a young man, he left to go to university. “Have you never been curious to go back and pay it a visit?” I once asked him. He smiled and gave a decided shake of the head. “Never,” he said shortly. No doubt, I told myself, he does not want to risk having the canvas he has painted for himself in any way distorted by reality.
Much like Ibrahim al-Koni’s desert, Mohamed El-Bisatie’s village is not a place he is trying to re-construct or probably even remembers accurately. It is thus not a “real” village so much as it is the memory-playground of his stories.
Thanks for the tip and link to reader Scott Walters.