‘The Grub Hunter’: A Novel Surveilling a Novel

Amir Tag Elsir’s The Grub Hunter was released this summer by Pearson in the U.K. Meanwhile, I don’t think there’s yet been movement on a U.S. edition:

It was not Amir Tag Elsir’s plan to write a novel within a novel. When he first sat down to pen “The Grub Hunter,” shortlisted for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, it was because Elsir had been struck by an image.

“I suddenly remembered an accident that happened when I was working in the Port Sudan hospital, in the surgery department,” said Elsir, who is also a practicing physician, in an email interview. “They brought three victims from a security car that had been watching a road leading to a farm — they were exactly as I describe in the book.”

One of the three accident victims was alchemized from Elsir’s memory into his protagonist: Abdallah Harfash, also known as Farfar. After his leg is blown off by “friendly fire,” Farfar is forcibly retired from his position with Sudanese security services.

Farfar makes an unlikely narrator for a book about writing. When “The Grub Hunter” opens, he has not yet read a single novel. Before the accident, Farfar’s sole contact with books was in seizing the “subversive” ones from stores.

But he does have plenty of experience watching others and writing reports about them. So an idea worms its way into Farfar’s consciousness: He must write a novel!

“The Grub Hunter” is a short book, just 133 pages, and follows Farfar from the moment this idea begins to obsess him to the project’s rapid end.

Metafictions often give an author time and space to ponder the nature of writing, as indeed this book does. But most of the characters in “The Grub Hunter,” like Farfar, are not high-minded literary types. Instead, they are struggling Sudanese citizens. Keep reading.