Syrian novelist Khalil Sweileh’s Writing Love (2008) was the surprise winner of the 2009 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.
The book, trans. Alexa Firat, is out in English as of this summer. In it, Sweileh attempts to say something new about love by constructing a circular book-about-writing-a-book that examines the nature of literature and passion.
The book is occasionally quite funny, as when a young love interest asks the narrator if he’s read Khalil Gibran. He replies that there are things “that a person does once in his life, like getting vaccinated for polio or tuberculosis. I read Broken Wings in junior high school. I remember it leaving a good impression on me that I don’t imagine would be the same today[.]”
But such enjoyable snobbery is inconsistent: The narrator, for instance, seems to class the work of Isabel Allende alongside that of Mario Vargas Llosa. And, either way, the literary one-liners are too sparsely laid to hold the book together.
Writing Love is, as the Mahfouz Award committee called it, an intelligent novel. But ultimately it does not explore new territory. The book grafts together different narrative techniques in an attempt to give love-writing a new flavor. The narrator likens the process to when, “Ummayads brought this pomegranate tree to Andalusia, it started to have another taste and another fragrance.” Nonetheless, the book feels like a pale echo of Italo Calvino’s “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler” that doesn’t quite take to the new soil. It makes a connection between writing and love — but fails to seduce the reader.
The English-language version is also roughened by typos and infelicities, as where Gabriel Garcia Marquez becomes “Gabu” instead of Gabo, and Jorge Luis Borges is “Jorges Luis Borges.” Sweileh is clearly a clever and voracious reader, but the book sprawls too widely.
And: Although the Naguib Mahfouz Prize has had its ration of controversy, this may be the first time I was disappointed in a Mahfouz Medal book, which has brought books like Bensalem Himmich’s The Polymath, Hoda Barakat’s Tiller of Waters, and Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah to English-language audiences. (Although my disappointment in the translation of Amina Zaydan’s Red Wine stands.)