The 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction has been awarded — to Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad —  but yesterday, IPAF Board of Trustees’ chair Yasir Suleiman noted that there are many gems to be found on the prize’s longlist. Richard Cozzens here reviews Ibrahim Nasrallah’s longlisted Edge of the Abyss for 7iber and ArabLit, a novel he says is, in its best moments, about violence and the act of creation:

By Richard Cozzens 

edgeIbrahim Nasrallah’s Edge of the Abyss is a novel squarely set in contemporary Jordan, following the intertwining lives of a handful of well-to-do Ammanis.  These men and women are the narrators of their own stories, with each short chapter alternating among their different perspectives.  The realism and directness with which the narrators speak make it rather surprising when the author himself intervenes for a few brief chapters.  He even steps away from narration momentarily to stake out a philosophical stance: “I merely want to clearly renounce the deceptive mask that novelists put on when they claim neutrality, for they are not neutral at all … they are the ones who kill their heroes, they who let their heroes live, and they who determine the image upon which we see those heroes.”

Though a bizarre departure in tone, this is a weighty quote in a novel where storytelling – and the manipulation that it implies – is fundamental.

Salman Sa’ud, known by all simply as Salman Bik, is a former minister known for his corruption and proud of his brutal interrogation skills.  He thrives on the manipulation of others, including Diana, his high-powered lawyer wife, and Karim, a professor recently fired from the private university that Salman o­wns.  Karim, social theorist and notorious womanizer, becomes a writer of stories during the course of the novel, creating texts that then take on a role of their own.

Unlike the omnipotent author-narrator described above, however, Karim’s writing is defined by his lack of power.  He becomes an author only due to a deal made with Salman Bik: the powerful politician-cum-businessman promises to restore the professor to his former position and forget the transgressions that got him fired if Karim in turn will write him a series of stories taken from Karim’s own life.  “Faustian bargain” would be too kind a term to describe this: Karim, faced with threats of eternal professional marginalization and even of violence, becomes a writer because he must.

The development of this forced artistic creation is the most intriguing and evocative political dimension of the novel: the powerful yet soulless Arab power-broker using mukhabarat-style coercion to fill his life with meaning, extorting artistic creation from the intellectual to pass off as his own.

The development of this forced artistic creation is the most intriguing and evocative political dimension of the novel: the powerful yet soulless Arab power-broker using mukhabarat-style coercion to fill his life with meaning, extorting artistic creation from the intellectual to pass off as his own.

For Salman, it is an attempt to fill the abyss that he feels expanding within self, as his memories of childhood and life fade away to nothing and he recognizes the emptiness of his own rise to the pinnacles of power.  He is a man with no consistent principles, repeating the phrase, “To me, everything is acceptable, even halal, with the exception of …” – substituting in the final clause whatever bolsters his own position and prestige at the given moment.  For Karim, this story exchange is a bizarre and distasteful task that he submits to reluctantly.

Karim is not exactly an intellectual hero, however.  When teaching at the university, his jargon-filled theorizing (“The sociality of the individual and the individuality of society”) served its primary purpose of convincing beautiful female undergraduates to express their individuality by leaping into bed with him.  He lived the life of the philandering professor for years, until the beautiful and brilliant undergraduate Nuha arranged his downfall.  She laid bare the fallacy of Karim’s theories, ignored his sexual coercion (the professor makes it clear that the price of her passing is a closed-door private visit to his office), and eventually managed to get him exposed and fired.

Once fired, it is this very reputation for promiscuity that earns Karim his new job as story-writer for Salman Bik:  the former minister doesn’t want just any stories from Karim’s life, but specifically tales of trysts with lovers around the world.  Then, in front of his friends, he reads aloud Karim’s true-life stories as if they were his own, as a means of bolstering his own manly reputation.  In some obscure way, this public posturing is also privately a cover for his own repressed, violent, and obsessive sexuality.

This story-extortion between Karim and Salman, then, is more than just an exchange of power and culture: it is about each character’s manhood.

This story-extortion between Karim and Salman, then, is more than just an exchange of power and culture: it is about each character’s manhood. Karim senses with regret that each story he sends contains a piece of himself, gone forever and now possessed by Salman.  In the form of Karim’s promiscuity and Salman’s repressed obsessions, male sexuality lies at the center of the novel as the main driver of its plot and centerpiece of its themes.

Caught in the middle of all this is Diana, Salman’s wife who, despite her high-powered career defending the defenseless, is painfully oblivious to Salman’s perpetual abuse of her.  As his obsession and violence gradually become clear – culminating in a brutal rape – she moves away from him emotionally and is tempted to start a relationship with Karim.  Both Diana and Karim are attracted to each other at multiple levels: to Diana, Karim offers the possibility of a caring and tender relationship for once in her life; to Karim (unaware of her connection to Salman), Diana represents a chance to regain ownership of some of his manhood after sending most of it off to Salman as stories.

Another important character in the book is the city of Amman itself, whose locations serve as backdrops for the novel’s scenes.  Salman plants Karim in an apartment overlooking downtown to do his writing in the “cultural atmosphere” of Jabal Al-Lweibdeh; Karim visits Hammoudeh DVD shop to get some inspiration for stories when he runs out of his own; Salman drives frantically around Gardens Street trying to find a gift to reconcile with Diana, eventually giving up because of his fear that the Shmeisani Safeway checkout clerks will judge him and sully his reputation.

For any reader who knows and appreciates Amman, it can be delightful to find these references to a city so rarely depicted in fiction or film.  Yet Amman in Edge of the Abyss is mostly a set of references and names, not descriptions.  Aside from a few passages noting the city’s monochromatic palette, a reader who does not know the city well would not be able to picture or imagine any of these locations from the text, as descriptions are utterly lacking: the manicured mansions of Deir Ghubar might as well be the lively and grubby streets of Downtown.

The novel moves at a fast pace, with frequent cliffhanger chapter endings making for an enticing read.  Unfortunately, Nasrallah does not let the various voices of the novel speak to us in ways that reflects their diverse characters: the narrative focuses on events and dialog, rather than reflection, and almost never varies from a frantic mood, maintained by the incessant use of paragraph-ending exclamation marks.

The novel moves at a fast pace, with frequent cliffhanger chapter endings making for an enticing read.  Unfortunately, Nasrallah does not let the various voices of the novel speak to us in ways that reflects their diverse characters: the narrative focuses on events and dialog, rather than reflection, and almost never varies from a frantic mood, maintained by the incessant use of paragraph-ending exclamation marks.  The only exception to this uniform style is the text of Karim’s stories themselves, in which a more relaxed and summery mood subtly emerges.

There is no doubt while reading the novel that the love-triangle between Salman, Karim and Diana is bound to end in some kind of tragedy – an expectation that plays out quite melodramatically.  Unfortunately, the narrative ends up focusing on the soap-operatic back-and-forth between these three characters, falling short of the political and metaphorical potential of the novel’s premise.

Despite the novel’s self-evident critique of the male chauvinism variously embodied by Karim and Salman, the women characters end up dismissed by the author as well.

Diana and Nuha, whose voices play a prominent role early on, are gradually marginalized as narrators in favor of Salman and Karim.  By the end of the novel, it is the contest over manhood that dominates the narrative, while Diana’s delayed quest for dignity and self-respect is eventually abandoned completely, as is the character Nuha.  Once she has played her role in causing Karim’s initial downfall, she disappears as both narrator and character.  Despite the novel’s self-evident critique of the male chauvinism variously embodied by Karim and Salman, the women characters end up dismissed by the author as well.

A last-minute link with the Arab revolutions, in which Salman’s driver rebels against him by not driving him home one rainy day, feels like an after-thought.  Until that event, the novel had focused on the lives of these four upper class Ammanis, with no attention paid to the politically or economically discontent.

All this makes for a disjointed ending, with narrative threads dropped and introduced in the final chapters.

All this makes for a disjointed ending, with narrative threads dropped and introduced in the final chapters.  While it is true that novelists are indeed all-powerful determiners of character, setting and fate within their novels, Edge of the Abyss leaves the reader wanting for more clarity and closure.

Richard Cozzens (@richcozzens) is a writer, research, and Arabic teacher currently based in Amman, Jordan.     

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