on radwa ashour’s spectres, in today’s independent

Pleased to see my very short review, shortened further to fit, of Spectres in today’s Independent: “Personal, Political and Painful” [UPDATE see below for review]. It ends; Spectres combines invention, unofficial history and human abyss in an elliptical novel in which Ashour articulates an ethics rooted in Arabian and ancient Egyptian cultures. The result transforms a bleak constellation into a quietly stirring beacon. Spectres provides an irresistible companion to Barghouti’s memoir I Saw Ramallah, and a contrast to Elias Khoury’s more traditional Gate of the Sun. Spectres is a boldly original novel by an important writer whose exemplary work we need more of in English.”

I had a little more to say, but would only add now that the companionship with those two titles was predicated crucially on the words, “in translation”, thus referring to the disgracefully small pool of Arabic writing yet in English. As it stands it might be read as a weird and old-fashioned kind of valorisation, no? The word “demanding” has also gone from elsewhere, and again, I only mention it because though it’s indubitably great to see the novel celebrated in The Independent, it is the best of things; a demanding read in more ways than one.

My similarly tiny review of the Mahmoud Darwish’s rivetingly demanding Absent Presence will appear in due course…

But pick up an Independent today; for
Jonathan Raban’s sober notes on “a debased political culture” in America, in which the letter of an old text was used to generate murder. You know, the sacred right to bear arms and all that dribble, something that the congresswoman campaigned on/for herself -tragic rather than ironic. As a signatory to Charter 88, calling for a British constitution, it gives me pause and is a bloody advert for fudging I concede.

Elsewhere there are beautiful tributes to the thoughtful art critic Tom Lubbock who has just died -and whom I never knew, incidentally. If you missed the beautiful and very recent piece he wrote “on what happens when words slip away” [for some reason in The G.], please read it.

It’s another day, so there’s news of another heinous crime by Occupying Israeli forces in Jerusalem, but heartening news too;“EU officials propose help for arrested Palestinians” who protest against ongoing ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem. Hey! Wow! Etc. [See this from yesterday’s Maan too, or Maan in general to get some idea of how constant this is, if you care that is.]

Also, declassified papers from Germany, revealing that they knew where Adolf Eichmann was in 1952. Though Hannah Arendt read the Eichmann trial right, the grotesque complacency across Europe about the entire arc of the Shoah is too easily and conveniently forgotten, even if something horribly similar -not comparing!- is happening to this day with regard to Palestine…

The Independent

Spectres,

By Radwa Ashour

Personal, political, and painful

Reviewed by Guy Mannes-Abbott

Monday, 10 January 2011

The Egyptian novelist, translator and academic Radwa Ashour’s novel Spectres arrives in English at the same time as her latest novel, The Woman from Tantoura, emerges in Arabic.

The latter chronicles the Palestinian “Nakba”, or disaster, during 1948, while Spectres details the ethnic cleansing of Deir Yassin in April that year. However the latter is not the only “paradigmatic event” rendered with exactitude in Spectres. Indeed Ashour broadens and deepens the responsibilities invoked by each one in this demanding book of questions.

The novel’s two main characters are Shagar Abdel Ghaffar and “Radwa Ashour”, women who share variant academic careers at a compromised institution and survive Egypt’s turbulence from the 1950s onwards. Both are writing books with a similar title that Ashour will link to notions of “analogous figures”, and binding connections. Both were born on 26 May 1946 at opposite ends of the Abbas Bridge in Cairo.

This familiar literary device becomes something else in a novel built on a sophisticated metaphorical doubling with universal purpose. Shagar’s story opens the book with the ghosts of ancestors who died during the forced digging of the Suez Canal, and ends it with somewhat heavy-booted symbolism. Meanwhile, when she confronts her students over their collective cheating, she’s told that “our society annihilates us in a thousand ways”. Against considerable odds she completes her research on Deir Yassin and the nocturnal testimonies of Aziza, Naziha and Basma Zahran toughen and madden an already autonomous character.  One determined to take responsibility for these spectres, responsibilities multiplied by Ashour’s further embrace of the silenced and dispossessed.

More compelling is the author’s startling presence as story and as teller. Ashour’s actual life fills the pages: heady commitments, writerly practice, and marriage to the great Palestinian poet and memoirist Mourid Barghouti. She attempts to write of unspeakable atrocities inflicted by British and Egyptian, American and Israeli despots. Her story is of Egyptian protests and the bombing of Baghdad, of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, familial exile and friends’ imprisonment. Also, she tells of a husband’s duelling with their poet son Tamim, using lines of al-Mutanabbi, the great Arab poet whose works Ashour’s grandfather edited.

Spectres combines invention, unofficial history and human abyss in an elliptical novel in which Ashour articulates an ethics rooted in Arabian and ancient Egyptian cultures. The result transforms a bleak constellation into a quietly stirring beacon. Spectres provides an irresistible companion to Barghouti’s memoir I Saw Ramallah, and a contrast to Elias Khoury’s more traditional Gate of the Sun. Spectres is a boldly original novel by an important writer whose exemplary work we need more of in English.

ARABIA BOOKS, £7.99 Order from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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