Friday, 23 August 2019

Book review: Women of Karantina, Nael Eltoukhy (2014)

This writer (despite the feminine-sounding name he is male) wants his novel to be emblematic of the story of the people of his region of the world. It’s a rollicking ride across the majority of the 21st century, although the speculative elements are by no means as compelling as the melodrama. Eltoukhy’s book starts out in the future, two generations from the time when the story opens in the first decade of the century. With a typically vibrant flourish, this part of the novel contains the story of two mangy, flea-bitten dogs who die in a hole.

The relevance of this scene with respect to the rest of the narrative is not immediately clear and it’s not really spelled out at the end of the tale either. It’s purely symbolic and it’s also flamboyant. The writer is remarking on his country’s lowly status and on the overriding sense of loyalty that motivates people who live there and that helps to form the communities that people enjoy.

The novel has at its centre a family and a criminal syndicate founded by two people, a man named Ali and a woman named Inji, who are second cousins and who marry. At the beginning of the book, the two flee Cairo in the direction of a town in the south of the country after, to protect Inji’s honour, Ali throws a man onto some train tracks, killing him. The action then turns to Alexandria, where the two end up engaged in a number of more or less legal businesses, including the operation of a cafĂ© and the running of a brothel. The couple’s son, Hamada, is instrumental in keeping the story going in the middle of the book and later the baton of responsibility for generating drama is passed, in turn, to Hamada’s daughters Lara and Yara.

The plot is loose and accommodates a series of structurally and logically unrelated events, much in the same way that an old 18th century picaresque novel is made up of a series of independent episodes: just one damned thing after another, one by one, scene after scene.

At the centre of their circle of patronage, amid all the murders and the conversations with religious persons or policemen and amid all the marriages, Ali and Inji stride through time like two ancient legends, surrounded by a coterie of adoring onlookers and supporters and hangers-on. It’s true that there is something charismatic about the two of them, and this feeling endures perhaps because of the endless marital spats they enter into and negotiate as Eltoukhy tries to come to terms with contemporary Egyptian society and politics. Key to most of the actions that people complete in the novel is the idea of revenge, of the seemingly endless search for justice in the sublunary world.

Some of the problems I felt in my first attempt to read the novel, and that were expressed in parts of the first draft of my review, remained once I had bitten the bullet and decided to give the beast a second chance. It’s not just the thin plot. Slapstick and melodrama are to comedy and tragedy what crime is to legitimate business, and the foundation of the dynasty of Ali and Inji is crime. But the story is suffused both with humour and a kind of sentimentality familiar to people who have seen or who watch soap operas. A good deal of the drama is expressive and some of it is overwrought, but this is all in the service of conveying larger truths about an entire citizenry. The main actors stand in for millions and so they are larger-than-life and their exploits are dangerous as well as gestural. At the core of the novel sits the maritime city of Alexandria which, evidently, occupies a special place in the author’s heart. The city is an international entrepot with a colourful history but in the novel’s shifting present it regrettably occupies second place to the larger and more important city of Cairo.

Much of the poetics of place is introduced through the use of dialogue; there is not much done in terms of drawing word pictures of Alexandria and its locales although the main characters tend to get a brief portrait when they are introduced for the first time. It seems that this author thinks in terms of the conversations that take place between people, such as Ali and Inji, or Ali and Abu Amin, an early patron, or Inji and Hagga Itemad, wife of the dead Alexandria crime boss Hagg Mohamed Harbi whose command of the affections of the people Ali dreams of rivalling.

A lot of the dialogue is rendered in straight prose without quotation marks or other punctuation. The narrative swallows up such conversations and buries them in its fundamental matrix. And some sections of dialogue are not entirely transparent. You sometimes miss cues and the object of people’s conversation can get lost among the details being put forward. This is a bit frustrating at times but it doesn’t completely spoil the story as the main characters retain prominence by being at the centre of the action for most of the time. While it’s something that might have been remedied by better editing this is a minor matter in the wider scheme of things. As mentioned earlier, this is a big, rambling novel with a large cast of characters, not all of whom are central to the project of making meaning.

The lack of significant locality portraits is however a bit surprising given that the novel has a place name – Karantina – in its title. In the novel (and, possibly, in real life; I don’t know), this working-class Alexandria suburb became the focus of government disaffection and dwellings there were removed in favour of other structures. But, in Eltoukhy’s version of events, the “legend” of Karantina is revived by Ali and Inji as they vie with the authorities and other gangsters in feuds fought for supremacy and for popular support. Scrappy and proud, Ali and Inji seek to buttress with the gravitas of history their mundane status as people of means.

Central to the plot is a property dispute that arises between the two parts of the crime family sitting in the middle of things. In the Middle Eastern context, for obvious reasons a device such as this contains broad relevance. And it is this kind of novel: one that has justified pretensions to stand in for a whole social system.

After reading about 10 percent of this Egyptian melodrama I wrote a version of this review that never got published. Then I finished the book. I was glad that I persevered although the ending is not as decisive as the length of the book, especially one with such strong central themes as this novel, encourages you to believe will be the reward for the effort expended in reading it.

There is also a mystical streak in this author’s worldview that makes sense in light of all the violence; in a book with so much death in it this is hardly surprising. The role women are given in the book as nurturers is modulated by their carnal appetites and by the leadership they provide in mundane concerns. It wasn’t entirely clear to me why the book’s title was devised the way it was, furthermore, but it’s at least a catchy title. And it’s an entertaining book. Well worth the time given over to reading it.

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