The ‘Timid Historical Novel’

In his afterword to Rashid Boudjedra’s The Barbary Figs (afterwords! these are so much better than prefaces!), translator André Naffis-Sahely comments briefly that the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) has bestowed three of its five awards on “timid historical novels.”

prod_main341Although the names have been removed from the afterword, Naffis-Sahely names them elsewhere*: Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis (the inaugural IPAF winner in 2008), Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel (2009), and Rabee Jaber’s Druze of Belgrade (2012). Naffis-Sahely here contrasts Boujedra’s “uncomfortable” voice in The Barbary Figs (which itself won the Prix du Roman Arabe in 2010) with the voices of these other novels.

Sunset and Azazeel are, yes, “readable” historical novels that, in the end, dissolve rather quickly upon the tongue. They take place in previous eras (Sunset during Egypt’s British colonial period; Azazeel during the Egypt of the 5th century AD); neither makes a lasting impression. Both meditate on self-doubt and on the individual’s role in preventing evil, but without creating new juxtapositions, surprises, fresh ways of looking into the world’s many mirrors.

But while I wasn’t a great fan of either of these books, I still hesitate to call on (Arab) historical novels to be less “timid.” After all, Yasmina Jraissati’s recent commentary in Book Brunch still hangs with me. Here, she discusses the categories in which we place (Arab) fictions and concludes: “I believe books have an intrinsic aesthetic and narrative value that is bound to escape us if we approach them with reductive categories.”

(I’m sure she didn’t mean that all books have intrinsic aesthetic and narrative value. Just, you know, the good ones.)

More than being timid in facing down the contemporary sociopolitical landscape, I suppose we could say that Sunset and Azazeel fail to bring anything particularly wonderful to the aesthetic and narrative table. You couldn’t call Taher’s earlier novel Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery bold, but it is joyfully told and enjoyable.

Another historical novel, published around the same time as Sunset Oasis and winner of the 2008 Prix du Roman Arabe, was Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping. Khoury’s 2007 novel doesn’t boldly confront injustices or say the unsayable (as Khoury does in his devastating Yalo), but its whorl-like movements, and its beautiful pasts overlaying and effacing pasts, make it lovely to read and re-read, consider and re-consider. Why it was not celebrated by the inaugural IPAF jury is a mystery, although I suppose its non-linear movements make it less “accessible.”

And back to Boujedra: His The Barbary Figs is a historical novel set during a plane ride from Algiers to Constantine, 50 years of Algerian story packed into two tiny airline seats, as a pair of cousins grapple with their pasts. These two protagonists can neither embrace one another nor let go, much as they have trouble grasping or forgetting their failures and the failures of their families. The book is indeed fresh, both stylistically and in its thick recreation of Algeria’s anti-colonial war.

Its layering of news clips, fictions, and the letters of French colonial figures is reminiscent of Assia Djebar’s Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade. However, while Fantasia ends with the anti-colonial war, The Barbary Figs circles the anti-colonial war of the 1950s, weaving in and out, never able to escape the gravitational pull of French colonialism (“in effect a chronic disease,” the narrator tells us).

Still, it was not the novel’s (sexual, historical, narrative) transgressions or its many symbolisms that compelled me. Rather, it was the minor characters, the curious gentleness bestowed upon in-between figures who have been violently erased by successive regimes and successive histories.

*Well, and in any case it’s pretty obvious.