Mahmoud Hosny: Is ‘A Small Death’ Really the Best Book of the Year?

This essay first appeared, in a slightly different form, in Arabic. Tomorrow, ArabLit will have a Q & A with International Prize for Arabic Fiction judge Sophia Vasalou:

By Mahmoud Hosny

“Much of the work has disappointed me, and publishers must hire professional editors.”

In this, Sahar Khalifeh, the chair of this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) jury, was not speaking about Mohammed Hasan Alwan’s IPAF-winning A Small Death. It seems as though the text of A Small Death demonstrated an authentic or toned-down author who had a professional, in-house editor. Her comment makes it sound as though the novel were a form of writing that’s all about the editing process, as though the editor can bring a text from weakness to originality in terms of sound, structure, and ideas.

Indeed, the talk Sahar Khalifeh gave during the announcement of the IPAF winner last week was a relief, after she went on the offensive against writers and publishers on her Facebook page on the day the shortlist was announced. That’s when she wrote: “The 186 novels submitted to the Booker Prize [International Prize for Arabic Fiction] were meant to be read and evaluated by our committee, and we are meant to choose the most beautiful and profound. Many of the novels, from our point of view, were not worth even the paper on which they were published, and for this I blame the publishers and their commercial attitudes, which pays no need either to the technical or to the humanist aspects of the books, and which further gives no attention to the reader’s benefit. Nor are they worried about the reader’s losses when the reader buys a novel which they cannot finish for all its density, vulgarity, and superficiality. Yet stranger still was that some accused us of corruption, and others of working for unknown mysterious entities. Most applicants, many of them novices and beginners, were expecting to win, even when they were still at the beginning of their careers, or when they did not have the talent necessary for this difficult art. It didn’t occur to them and their publishers that the committee, any committee, could not turn a blind eye to such stagnation and vulgarity, or give the prize to all 186 novels. However, despite all the difficulties we’ve encountered, we’ve arrived at a satisfactory, even a wonderful, result, and we consider some of these artworks distinctive within our contemporary Arabic literature, and I advise everyone to read on.”

I don’t know how to respond to Sahar Khalifeh on the subject of writers at the beginning of their paths, except to remind her that Camus wrote his The Stranger while he was still in his twenties. And, in this, he is not alone.

‘The Small Death’ and its breakdown

This 600-page tome almost entirely breaks down in its first third. Ibn ‘Arabi, the novel’s protagonist, characterized by extreme poverty, is a key connective figure in the history of Sufism. The predominant character of this biography is “just” as a chronological narrative, without giving us a clue as to the intersection of textual paths.

And let’s not forget the traditional way in which the text was written. If we turn to the language of this novel, which is written about the author of the The Meccan Illuminations, we’ll find a language similar to the scripts movies that tell about the Age of Ignorance and the dawn of Islam.

But the problem is not down to language or the drawing of the characters. It chooses to make the central narrator Ibn ‘Arabi. This is a choice that weakens the features of the figures who surround him, and who our protagonist met in a life filled with travel and migration. How can a novel of this many pages be built around a central voice — without polyphony or without reference to the voice of an omniscient narrator? Well, this didn’t happen, and the breakdown of the textual integrity was inevitable.

We hear the stories of Ibn ‘Arabi as a child, as a teen, as a husband, and as a sheikh, yet without the stories of Ibn ‘Arabi as a problematic personality whose historical presence is not captured by all the arguments about his Sufi view of God, and the universe, and the things around him.

Did the author of ‘A Small Death’ read The Meccan Illuminations?

Maybe, if this had happened, we would not see the Ibn ‘Arabi of A Small Death shedding tears in many situations that don’t seem to deserve them. Perhaps this is to cloak the spiritual side, to combine the personal insights of the writer. Or did the writer chiefly want to expend his efforts in shaping a controversy-free perception of Ibn ‘Arabi and to avoid his more contentious aspects?

The simulation of the mystic text

The obsession with Sufis has been driven mainly by the popularity of the Elif Shafak novel The Forty Rules of Love. There is an Arab obsession with this novel that’s hard to ignore. The central problem is that every narrative simulation of the mystical text, in contemporary language, brings us a text detached from a moment not easy to grasp — except in the language of its own historical moment.

There is also a mystical obsession with using Sufism as a means of combating rigid belief and extremism, as its interpretations and visions take a broader view, and don’t rely on a literal interpretation of the sacred text. But here, perhaps we need to revisit the words of political novelist Tim Pears: “A novel can’t change the world.”

Mahmoud Hosny is an Egyptian author and critic. Translated by M. Lynx Qualey. As always, any errors on this website are down to me.