Tarek Eltayeb’s “The Palm House” has the beginnings of a strong and important novel.
For the first 160 pages, the Sudanese author’s second book goes roaring along. The novel, published in Arabic in 2006 and now available in English through the AUC Press, presents a sharp, witty look at an African emigrant’s life in Vienna. The drama of Hamza’s chilly existence is heightened by flashbacks to the horrors of Sudan’s civil war, a terrifying flight to Egypt, and a departure for Austria.
The novel by and large unfolds as Hamza narrates his life story to his new Viennese girlfriend. The action begins on a winter’s day in the late 1990s as he rides a tram to escape his cold apartment. Hamza describes his fellow passengers in an internal monologue gamely translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid:
“Their morose faces instantly light up if there’s a single dog on the tram, a sight that practically turns them into children: they start talking to the animal and smiling at it and petting it, and sometimes they even let it lick their hands. Yet as soon as these people — the very same people who have just shown the animal all of this kindness and affection — sit up in their seats again, the stern features return to their faces, faces that seem revolted by the world and so many of its people.”
Happily for Hamza, not all Viennese are repelled by him. On page 20, Hamza drops his groceries and is assisted by the lovely Sandra, who quickly becomes his beloved. It is she who sparks most of Hamza’s flashbacks. She asks questions, and, Hamza says, “The words flowed out of me.”
Indeed, for part of the book, the story flows: Hamza’s mother and sisters die when his village is destroyed by famine and drought. He moves to Khartoum and sees the city change in ways that alarm him. In the most vivid section of the novel, Hamza is forced to join the north-Sudanese army, where he fights in a war he neither supports nor understands. He is captured by opposing forces, freed by them, re-captured by “his” side, and jailed.
As Hamza relays all this to Sandra, few things happen in the story’s Austrian foreground. He and Sandra sit around her apartment and occasionally eat. She can’t wait to hear the next installment of her lover’s tale. For the first 160 pages, the reader can’t, either.
Some flaws are evident in the first half of the book. While most of the characters are given both good and bad traits, Sandra’s flawlessness makes her seem like a china doll. And while most historical information is well-integrated into the story’s action, a wise old south Sudanese man stops the narrative to lecture at great length.
But during the book’s muscular, witty first half, the reader is willing to forgive these lapses: So what if Sandra suffers from doll-like perfection? So what if an old guy just nattered on for five pages about the good old days? We want to hear more of Hamza’s story: How did he escape from military prison? And then what? How did he get to Cairo? “I tell this whole story without stopping, and without Sandra asking any questions. Her hand is in mine, and her face is pressed against my face.” Go on; keep reading.