Asmaa Abdallah reviews another of the titles on the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction longlist: Youssef Rakha’s Paulo:
By Asmaa Abdallah
Youssef Rakha’s novel Paulo is no easy read. There is nothing straightforward about it; not its language, narrative, form, characters, or events.
This is not unfamiliar territory for Youssef Rakha. As a sequel to his acclaimed novel The Crocodiles, Rakha recreates the same grim, complex mood in Paulo. Longlisted for the tenth round of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, this novel also carries Rakha’s trademark blending of the colloquial with the classical, which comes surprisingly within same sentence, as well as his experimentation with form.
This time the form is a blog, and the blogger is Amer, aka Paulo, an amateur poet-cum-photographer who also appeared in The Crocodiles. Paulo has strong links to the vibrant and pro-revolutionary cultural scene in Cairo as well as to the Egyptian security apparatus before and during the time of the revolution. The downtown bookstore he manages, and where he takes nude photographs of his lovers, is also the same place from which he conducts clandestine meetings and collects information from unsuspecting sources.
And while this is ultimately another novel about the revolution, particularly because of its blog form, the way it proceeds is a departure from the conventions and the expectations of both the form and the body of novels about the Egyptian revolution that began January 25, 2011. As a narrative with an ever-looping circular order, it reads more like a novel than a blog. Constantly shuttling back and forth and re-telling the same events differently, many of the entries are repetitive and do not follow a consecutive order. And while the 59 entries of the blog are divided into four categories — Dreams, Events, Movies, and Meetings — the distinction between the categories is often blurred. Some meetings and movies read more as if they were dreams, or rather nightmares, and some dreams are in fact an account of real events, followed by Paulo’s opinion of them.
Given that this is a blog about the revolution, one would hardly expect its author would be an informant, since this medium has generally been reserved for the pro-revolutionaries defending and romanticizing it. Here, however, Rakha seems to do the very opposite, showing another side that is disillusioned, violent, and very much anti-change.
But Paulo’s stance on the revolution is neither this nor that, but rather both. He admires the images of the revolutionaries as they struggle in the protests, but has them arrested. He condemns the massacre of the Ultras and vows revenge for them, but partakes in his own murders and torturous operations. The explanation is within the blog: Paulo clarifies that he starts out as an informant, working with the police against the likes of 6th of April and Kifaya movements, but the revolution does not leave him unchanged. Overcome by the numbers and liveliness of the crowds on January 25 and the ensuing days, he briefly slips out of his informant role to join the ranks of the revolutionaries. The fact that he is also unable to contact his superiors at the police, who seem to have vanished into thin air, also leads him to get further in touch with his revolutionary side, which is perhaps a remnant of the older idealistic self, the poet of the underground society we met in The Crocodiles.
But this does not last long. Following the March referendum, and when it becomes clear that the Muslim brotherhood has taken over the revolution and that they are in cahoots with the military, his illusion ends, and he fills the ugly shoes of the informant again, neither admirable nor heroic.
In fact none of the characters are heroic or remotely likeable. Apart from Paulo’s love interests, Moon and Farida, there are a plethora of unremarkable characters who keep slipping in and out of the narrative and whom we never get to properly know – neither do we want to. Thugs, informants, and false heroes, these characters, including Paulo, are observing each other, constantly shifting alliances, mistrusting one another, ratting each other out, and occasionally torturing each other. The hostility, suspicion and aggression trickle from one to the other.
The torture scenes are ones in which the narrative seems to delight, sparing no gruesome detail. Equally appalling are the vulgar descriptions Paulo assigns his lovers’ bodies and reactions during sex. Perhaps the most indelible among the violent sex scenes, or the ones in which characters are physically or psychologically tortured, is that in which Paulo molests his yielding cat.
Rakha takes the time to ground his main character in the cultural scene, transferring him from the field of words to that of pixels – much like Rakha himself –having him organize events with prominent intellectuals and engaging him in conversations in which he compares the quality of the novels of prominent Egyptian authors Bahaa Taher and Mekawwy Said.
He also places him in the middle of the protests and has him express his opinion on the revolution and its different participants: from his willingness to do whatever it takes to defeat the Islamists to reconsidering his adulation of former Egyptian Pres. Gamal Abdel Nasser following a discussion with a die-hard supporter of the deceased president to criticizing the naiveté of the revolutionaries.
Juxtaposed with this hyperreality is the Lion, which is heard roaring in the square, a reference that continues from The Crocodiles, where the poets were obsessed with Allen Ginsberg’s “The Lion for Real.” There are also snakes; a tribal figure Metre, whose supernatural powers are unexplained; and the appearance and disappearance of Nayef’s body.
These characters and occurrences, along with Paulo’s questionable ethics, cannot but cast doubt on his credibility as a narrator. There is also the fact that he is convinced he’s a messenger and the unknown leader of the revolution, although he admits to contributing to the counter-revolutionary effort as well.
As such, it is hard-going to try to understand this novel; to read entry after entry, to link the fragmented and jumbled pieces of the narrative together, to understand the true motives of the slew of characters whom we barely know and whose alliances we suspect, in language that is inconsistent and seems to be deliberately shocking, all while taking this information from a single narrator who offers proof for both the thing and its opposite, a man all of whose lovers have been killed though he swears it wasn’t at his hand, a man whose associates and friends have all met disturbing fates, a man who claims to be the leader of the revolution but is doing everything he can to sabotage it.
It is exhausting and unsettling, much like the Egyptian revolution.
Asmaa Abdallah holds a BA in English Literature from Cairo University and an MA in English and Comparative Literature from the American University in Cairo. Since 2006, Asmaa has been writing for English language publications. She has also contributed to the translation of the winners’ works of Beirut 39, published by Bloomsbury in 2010.