It makes sense to me that Hisham Matar was a poet before he was a novelist. But what kind of sense? I find I run into trouble as soon as I try to explain why I nodded my head as soon as I read that he had been a finalist in “East Anglia’s Best New Talent Awards” for some poems he wrote. I suppose I could say, for example, that there is a really diagetic quality to the narrative of In the Country of Men, and that the reality we apprehend in his book as readers is distinct, in some important sense, from the reality which is experienced by Suleiman, as character. Is “poetic” the right word for that?
As I argued in the first post, for example, I think the sun in this novel should be read not merely as a concretely experienced reality — as not simply the tangible, visceral presence that drives residents of Tripoli to their bedrooms in the early afternoon heat — but also as a kind of winking conceit to the reader in a conversation to which the characters are not particularly privy. The sun serves as metaphoric commentary on the nature of power which Gaddafi wields. It is always present, always out of reach, the “real” of the sun — the actual light and heat — is only part of its presence in the novel; the other function is its illumination of how the panoptic totality of hyper-surveillance by a dictator is also the ordering principle of Suleiman’s society, how the thing which burns is also the thing which gives life. But if author and reader perceive this level of meaning, the characters experiencing the sun in that moment surely do not, right?
I’m not sure that calling this a poetic mode accomplishes much, of course. Show me a rule about what a poem or a novel should look like and I’ll show you a poem or novel that defies that rule. But in this case, gesturing towards two forms of each genre does help me put words to that important quality that I find in Matar’s mode of writing: the balance between diagesis and mimesis leans just a bit farther towards the former than a realist sensibility might encourage us to expect, and aspects of it will be more accessible to us if we think of the author’s intentions as a more about things rather than simply showing them, in a way I suppose I am tending to associate with poetry. The “sun” is a conceit, in other words, a metaphor for power, rather than a realist representation of the thing in and of itself.
The first time I read In the Country of Men, I didn’t notice the bit about the sun at all. I wasn’t looking for that kind of metaphor; I was expecting, simply, a realist novel because that was my unconsidered default, and certainly this novel feels to be that kind of realist narration. Which is why I guess what I’m interested in here is not so much finding the right categorization as avoiding the limitations of a categorization I presume without realizing it: the thing that made me nod my head when I read about Matar’s start as a poet was the fact that this novel is not the kind of realist narrative that I initially assumed it to be, not the form of novel-writing in which the author is off-stage and the reality experienced as such by the characters is also taken to be “real” by us.
For what it’s worth, I’m having this kind of experience with all the Arabic novels I’m reading these days, though that may be a coincidence. For example, only when I was re-reading Naguib Mahfouz’s Karnak Café (which was so kindly gifted to me by an anonymous reader) did the fact that the narrator ends up at the Karnak because he is getting his watch repaired suddenly strike me as significant detail, a cue to the reader that frames the narrative concerns driving the story after that point. But it surely is and does: the main action of the novel has nothing to do with watches as objects, but everything to do, metaphorically, with the broken chronology of Nasser’s modernization narrative, the failures of that promised progression which come to be revealed to the narrator only when he “steps out of time” and joins the young people at the Karnak Café. And in the same way, I found Ibrahim Aslan’s The Heron completely baffling until I started applying a different kind of hermeneutic, taking the various references to water, fishing, and thirst that populate the first few pages (the characters who fish, are thirsty, rained on) as fairly explicit references through the central metaphor of the Heron itself to the place in time and space the novel is about, Sadat’s infitah and the bread riots of 1977.
There is nothing to this kind of move that is particular or exclusive to “Arabic writing” or anything like that, nor would it be at all difficult to find examples of purely “realist“ novels written in Arabic. But my reaction and assumptions guided and limited the ways I was able to most easily access these books when I first started reading them: my first reaction to the narrator’s watch-fixing was through the kind of prejudice to “show, don’t tell” that I imbibed during my brief time in creative writing classes, which is built into the realist tradition, and which prejudices me to read a novel the particular way I expect to find it to be.
I don’t want to invest these broad strokes I’m using with more authority than they deserve: no geographical category is ever nearly as useful in describing the particular forms of literary production as we might like them to be. And yet, how do we clarify and think critically about the limitations to our critical modes — which were derived from particular models and from particular conversations — without talking about the ways our critical tools will match particular conversations better than others? What will a critic schooled in The 19th Century European Novel or 20th Century American Modernism be unable to see in The Arabic Novel? After all, while it’s clear to me that these categories tell me much more about my own critical apprehension than about the novel I’m digging into, the distinction is never complete: what I started out by flagging as a poetry/realism distinction might also be a way of talking about the ways an Arabic literary aesthetic starts with some different presumptions (or excludes a different set of possibilities) than the Western realist tradition with which I’m most familiar, so familiar I don’t even think about it. Karnak Café can seem like a not-very-good novel, for example, if you measure it by the Balzac-of-Egypt standards that are always used to call the Cairo trilogy Mahfouz’ greatest work. And you would be wrong! But this is not only one of the ways that Mahfouz’s work has been measured (externally, by critics), but one of the social forces against which he has surely had to contend as artist, one of the influences on the original production of a novel like Karnak Café.
To turn back to Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men is not, of course, The Arabic Novel, and not least because it was written in English, in London, by an author who is thoroughly vested in some version of The Western Realist Tradition. And no particular Arabic novel ever really is anyway. But the thing that I find different in The Heron and Karnak Cafe — the thing that I feel grinding against my critical expectations until I find a way to loosen my grip — feels similar to the ways In the Country of Men does the narrative work that it does. In my next post on the book (whenever I get to it), I’m going to talk about the mulberries — which I started thinking about after reading Kamila Shamsie’s review — as another example, and about the way the book‘s bildungsroman structure actually makes the thing I‘ve been calling its “diagetic” quality more like a kind of psychoanalytic transcript.
 From page one: “One day, I’d made my way to al-Mahdi Street to get my watch repaired; the job was going to take several hours, so I had to wait. To kill the time, I decided to look at all the watches, jewelry, and trinkets on display…”