Author and critic Mahmoud Hosny’s debut novel, Maps of Yunus, launches Friday, December 8 at the 2017 Beirut Book Fair:
The book was supported by a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC). It was one of eight projects to win a 2016 AFAC grant, which brought with it the guidance of novelist Jabbour Douaihy. Hosny’s first novel is a fusion of myth and reality set against the slow death of the city. Its titular Yunus is alone on an isolated island, not unlike like the belly of a whale. It’s a place where the elite have tried to eradicate traces of the poor, turning it into a model of a “modern” city.
Within the walls of a narrow room, beside the library where he works, Yunus watches his city’s demise as he looks to the other side of the river, where his love Ola is also looking for him as she witnesses the place’s death. A blind whale is the companion of his sleeps, while a blind cat is hers. The city is dying a cruel death — yet there is hope, too.
Those in Beirut can join the launch at the Dar Saqi stand (B3) at the 2017 Beirut Book Fair. This short excerpt comes from the beginning of the book:
from Maps of Yunus
by Mahmoud Hosny
He was standing above the water tank as the morning’s fog slipped between the trees and buildings, filling all the invisible crevices and turning the place into a dense grayness. His flickering gaze was on the expanse of the horizon when he saw a crack in the clouds’ thick grayness. Then, in the sky, three majestic figures appeared.
The figures were not floating his way as he stood on the body of the tank above the river’s vein, between island and city. Instead, they were swimming from behind the stretch of cityscape, passing over the river, heading toward the island’s forest of trees. Slowly, as if drowsy, the figures crossed the breadth of sky. And when they passed in front of his eyes, he grasped the scene: two large whales, one advancing on the other, with their young one between them. Yunus stood above the dry water tank, tracking their effortless path across the fragile horizon.
Yunus woke from his sleep — a sleep that had slipped over him at the beginning of dusk and stretched through the entire night. He woke at six in the morning, as was his custom. If he was slower than usual, it was because this was a holiday: there was a warm bath and breakfast, then at seven, an hour before work, he was seated at his desk, which occupied the corner nearest the door in the library’s Great Hall.
The hall was not unlike the great halls of Gothic palaces and churches. Shelves occupied most of the wall space, and at the center were tables similar in design, albeit different in size. The office was surrounded by a walled garden, dense with trees, which almost obscured the features of the place from a distance.
The Grand Library didn’t close its doors, not even during the holidays. But usually, a holiday would be lazy—not only in the library, but in the whole of the city. This allowed Yunus to read and listen to the music he enjoyed. He felt some perplexity about which music or book should start his morning. After a few minutes, he settled on a short piece by Gustave Mahler. As it began, he walked around through the bookshelves, and his eyes fell on the novel The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim al-Koni. Although it was a slender book, it stood out against the distant shelf, and he felt it choosing him to read it. He smiled as he took the book. This was not the first time he’d felt a book choosing him, and not the other way around.
The day passed slowly, and the sun rose to its highest point, then gave way to a tottering exhaustion. No one had come into the library that day. Yunus was surprised, but he didn’t think much about it. He closed the Great Hall. He went out to get something to eat and was struck that the streets were empty and the cars in their places, cold and lifeless. The shop was closed and the traffic lights blinked on and off, changing their colors, in a conversation with no one. Yunus didn’t understand what was happening. This was the first time he’d seen the island like this, like a dead body, or at least unconscious.
After more than a half hour of roaming, without coming any closer to any appearance of life, he glimpsed what seemed to be a man’s body on the horizon.
Yunus could not guess what would come next. There was a slim black outline of a human body, and behind it the disc of the sun, plunging from the steps into the stand of trees. Yunus approached, suspicious. He thought, most likely, the next moments would tell him what was happening. They would explain the silence that gripped this place.
When he got there, he found the man barefoot, dressed in nightclothes. When he approached more closely, he saw the man appeared half-drunk. The man didn’t seem to notice anyone was there. And, when Yunus tried to draw his attention, the man’s features took on a look of panic, which grew whenever he heard Yunus’s voice.
Yunus tried to call to the man, who was running from him, but his calls only made the man run faster. Yunus ran behind him, and was the faster. He seized him: “What’s going on, man? Why won’t you speak?” There was no answer. The man only tried to hide his eyes to escape the confrontation with Yunus’s gaze.
He continued: “I won’t hurt you, okay? Where do you live? Why are you barefoot? Can you hear me? Can you answer? I won’t hurt you…. Can you just help me understand why you’re like this?” The man had no answer for any of these questions, only a panic that seemed to intensify the shaking movements of his body. Saliva slid from his mouth, and he began to cry, making a whimper like that of a baby.
Yunus tried to calm him, sitting him down on the ground and taking a seat beside him. In the midst of calming the man, he felt suspicious that here in front of him was the city’s governor: a man in his early sixties, although he seemed younger. He had light hair and was light-skinned.
He held the man’s face and lifted it up, trying to examine it. The man in front of him wasn’t like the ruler of the city, he was himself the ruler. And as he tried to figure out what was going on, and tried to calm the man, Yunus felt as though his mind had ruptured. He was gripped by a profound unknown and struggled to grasp any sense in the middle of this thick, heavy fog, only a fraction of the accumulation in his unconscious. He found himself unable to understand anything. All existence seemed to be closed to his mind and spirit.
Around him, shadows swallowed the remaining red twilight. For a few minutes, before the streetlamps lit up, it was very dark. Yunus helped the man rise from the ground and took him to the library, where Yunus had a room. He knew the way well, but was afraid that the lamps would be extinguished, and that the darkness would swallow them both.
Excerpt translated by M. Lynx Qualey, who is responsible for any and all infelicities.