Mayyasi reviews Antoine Douaihy’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)-longlisted The Bearer of the Purple Rose, in which a writer is forced to choose to write a tyrant’s biography or languish in prison.
Antione Douaihy’s novel The Bearer of the Purple Rose, nominated for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, may at first appear tiresome in the depth of its focus and the extent of its detail. The world of the novel is wholly concentrated on its protagonist, self-exposition in first-person narrative from beginning to end. Perhaps this detail stems from the fact that the main character is an intellectual, who works as a writer.
The tyrant’s intelligence services pursue the narrator, who has long grown accustomed to distancing himself from all that relates to the politics of his country. Dire financial straits have forced him to write for a magazine that the regime uses to burnish its image abroad, yet he ultimately goes back on his decision to regain a sense of balance and self respect. In the aftermath, events proceed without the author being fully aware of them, leading him to make a difficult decision at the end of the novel.
The solitude that Douaihy forces upon his protagonist leads to the latter’s personal implosion. He loses his French lover when he cannot make a decision about having a child. Likewise, he is locked away in the tyrant’s prison, alone with a picture of the latter, until he chooses to write the tyrant’s biography. This brings forth a strange kind of covert revolution towards his mother and his now-married lover, Rania, in the hopes that it helps him pass the year granted him to carry out this project.
The relationships of the narrator with himself and with his surroundings are nearly complete. His mother is a well-balanced lady on the whole, while the Western lover melts in his love until he refuses to give an answer on the matter of the child, and so she separates from him little by little. The married mother Rania, on the other hand, persists in visiting him in confinement despite her precarious circumstances.
In the novel, there is a subtle comparison between two societies, Arab and Western. Much as the reader might sense that the scales lean in favor of the latter, Douaihy repeats subtle messages to the effect that Western society does not win out as completely as we might think.
The novel moves us strongly to consider whether shying away from engaging in any talk of politics, the decision taken by the writer from the beginning of his life, is a sufficient precaution to avoid getting swept up in political matters.
The novel moves us strongly to consider whether shying away from engaging in any talk of politics, the decision taken by the writer from the beginning of his life, is a sufficient precaution to avoid getting swept up in political matters. Yet the decision to reject writing the magazine for the tyrant, presented as a dignified withdrawal without further explanation, is what attracts attention to the protagonist in the end. If this negative attitude cannot not be the best choice, then was the decision to write the tyrant’s biography the best possible solution? Or was the writer fooling himself, and was it such weakness, the failure to stick to his principles in the first place that brought him to this isolated cell? Douaihy leaves us standing before the protagonist, pondering this question, without providing an answer.
Mayyasi (http://www.mayyasi.ws/) is a former web developer, a blogger, translator and an editor.
Translated by Andrew Leber, one of the runners-up in our headline-writing contest, among other things.