Camel’s Feet: Youssef Rakha’s Three Best Books of 2016

Youssef Rakha (@Sultans_Seal) is that odd bilingual writer — Arabic and English, in his case — who manages to see the underside of two literary languages, pick loose their threads, and re-tie them after his own fashion. Rakha has two novels currently available in English: the towering and still-underappreciated Book of the Sultan’s Seal, trans. Paul Starkey; and the page-turning meditation on poetry Crocodiles, trans. Robin Moger:

By Youssef Rakha

glassesTwo introductory remarks if that’s okay:

  1. Though I did read a few in the course of the year – a shoutout to Maan Abu Taleb for Kul al Maarik!*– what follows does not include any Arabic titles. This is not intentional, but since I’ve been royally pissed off with the Arab literary sphere for years now, it’s not entirely unintentional either.
  2. I turned forty in 2016, and now I have something called reading glasses which I actually put on while I’m working. It’s outrageous.

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, 2006

I’m starting with this because I’m still reading it – on my Kindle, so I don’t really know how long it is, but it’s been with me for weeks and I feel it must be a thousand pages or more. I picked it up because, when I found out about the author, I read that HarperCollins paid him a million-dollar advance for his second novel. This made me very curious, especially since the (now abandoned) working title for my current project was The Sacred Game Texts. To be clear I was half expecting Coelhoesque drivel when I started, but I’ve been inspired and I’ve learned.

Sacred Games is a Bombay novel, very different from Jeet Thayil’s 2012 Narcopolis, which shows more visceral knowledge of the city, but with the same intense awareness of its sounds and smells. It’s a murder (or suicide) mystery: the detective is a be-turbaned sardar and the antagonist (who may actually be the protagonist) a bhai, which is the Mumbai term for mobster. And it’s a very un-judgemental work of realism, exposing the nature of police work and upward mobility in contemporary India with a no-nonsense candour comparable to Aravind Agida’s. But it also has enough viewpoints and stories within stories to smack of the Thousand and One Nights. And it makes an epic statement on the moral hopelessness of humanity.

With narrative credibility and without the slightest concession to such market dictates as dumbing down or oversimplification, it brings in the Partition, Bollywood, the complex caste, language and tribal divisions within Hinduism, the Muslim problem, chaos, horror, culinary delights, the cold war with Pakistan, apocalypse, parent-child relations, extramarital adventures, the tenderness of intelligence officers and the West-wallahs’ failure to understand. It’s also only about seventy percent English, the rest being Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Gujarati and above all Bombayese, with some Punjabi thrown in for good measure. It even taught me this delightfully un-Western pejorative for a Muslim: “landya”. The consolations of literature: now when a coreligionist annoys me, I can mutter “Maderchod landya” and feel a little better about life.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, 1956, 2001

Early in the year I managed to get through Hogg by Samuel R Delany. I like the end-of-days weirdness and bisexual abandon of Delany’s science fiction, which teeters on the edge of discomfort, but this was something else. I had often claimed that no book could be too disgusting for me and it proved me wrong. But I mention Hogg because I feel that, in its own oblique and fucked-up way, it carries forward a black-man-dealing-with-being-gay tradition which James Baldwin’s incomparably more graceful work establishes. Neither novel has a black hero, although it seems to me both channel the public horror of racial oppression into the private predicament of fraught sexuality.

I hadn’t actually read any Baldwin when, exactly halfway through Sacred Games, I put away my Kindle and picked up this pretty little paperback, the Penguin Great Loves edition: a gift from my friend the literary wunderkind Noor Naga. And it was two or three days before I picked up my Kindle again.

It is beautifully claustrophobic stuff, almost like a cross between Ernest Hemingway and Jean Genet (think The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast; think not The Miracle of the Rose or A Thief’s Journal but Our Lady of the Flowers). If such a cross can be imagined, that is: I could never have conceived of it if I hadn’t read this book. It’s almost like a short circuit in modern American literature.

Now it is interesting to speculate how Baldwin might’ve approached a sex scene had he written one. But there is no sex scene. There is tremendous sensual emotion and ruthless satire, people reduced to their ignoble roles in shame-filled personal dramas. There is immersive lyricism, melancholy but seldom bitter, and sprinkled with bursts of joy. There is a tightly constructed plot line custom-designed to accommodate those two registers of discourse with the precision of a one-act play. But most remarkably there is prose, incredible, transcendent prose, prose as lucid and adaptable as the variable focus of a bright 50mm lens exposing soul-sensitive film.

An Elemental Thing by Eliot Weinberger, 2007

In my experience what tends to happen is — first you like someone’s work, then you meet them and it puts you off their existence! So it was quite refreshing, during my last foray out of Cairo, to meet Eliot Weinberger and think he was great before indulging in any evidence of his genius. It was at the Leukerbad Literary Festival in Switzerland, and he was reading one of his pieces. I hadn’t thought about creative nonfiction for a long time, even though it was by combining poetry with reportage and autobiography that I initially returned to writing after a six-year hiatus, back in 2006. It was only gradually that I learned to mould these hybrid texts into novels…

A warm, humorous, cigarillo-smoking purveyor of knowledge, both arcane and current but especially arcane, Weinberger translates from the Spanish and writes political articles as well as working on the kind of mind-altering text you can find in this collection. His name is associated as much with Octavio Paz as it is with What I Heard about Iraq, an antiwar book that has begotten plays, art installations, dance performances and cantatas. His essays, which he approaches like research projects but executes like poems, have not a made-up word in them. Though as evocative and powerful as the best inventions, they reflect their sources with astounding precision. And they range wildly, from the Indian sage Valmiki to Chinese historical figures named Chang, and from nearly book-length pieces to this one-sentence essay, named “The Sahara”: “Camels’ feet leave lotus-pad prints in the sand.”

Held together by four pieces on the seasons, the book also includes Weinberger’s tremendous life of the Prophet, Muhammad, which delves into original sources to produce what is essentially a piece of magic realism. Relieved of its traditional sanctity, the Messenger of God’s biography turns into something universal, fantastic without being exotic and an invitation to wonder.


Right now I’m really looking forward to Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Nocilla Dream and Nocilla Experience by Agustín Fernández Mallo (trans. Thomas Bunstead) and Diving Makes the Water Deep by Zach Savich.

*Forthcoming in English translation by Robin Moger.