Matthew Richardson

Revolutionary literature

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The book world has been abuzz with the Arabic Booker. High-quality fiction is connecting with political conflict and the convulsions in the Middle East have revealed a literary culture often closed to the West. Boyd Tonkin describes how the ceremony itself was infected by the surrounding political drama:

‘Yet even here, under the obligatory tank-sized chandeliers of a hotel ballroom and with local dignitaries aplenty in the audience, the unsettling new realities could hardly be left outside. Whenever a speaker mentioned the Arab democratic spring, a gunshot crackle of applause rippled through the hall.’

Formal innovation has played its part too, with the novel finally coming to prominence in the Arab world. As Michael Binyon puts it in the Times (£):

‘Arabic literature has undergone an extraordinary resurgence in recent years. There is an old saying that “poetry is the register of the Arabs”. Today it is the novel. Rarely have so many writers engaged so passionately with the issues now roiling Arab society: political freedom, sexual revolution, women’s rights, religion, fundamentalism and the repressive effects of tradition, family and prejudice.’

But Orwell’s worry that literature will be snuffed out by some form totalitarianism (here a religious totalitarianism) remains all too true. Binyon writes:

‘Previous state censorship has been replaced with something more insidious: the threat from religious extremists, who will not allow any modern writer to question the fundamentals of Islam’.

 

Tackling the political present is a tough gig for most writers. In his article, Binyon compares the ‘Arab novelists today’, including of Mohammed Achaari and Raja Alem (the joint winners of the Arabic Booker), with ‘writers in the former Soviet Union, who also struggled to speak freely and faced being banned but won widespread influence and respect’. However, revolution and upheaval arguably make the job easier (the Romantics would have been lost without 1789). No novelist closer to home has quite captured the muddy complexities of contemporary politics. Both Martin Amis and Ian McEwan have dipped a toe in the Blair years (The Second Plane and Saturday, for example), but only to duck short of their best.

 

All of which puts me in mind of an interview Tom Stoppard gave on Charlie Rose in 2004, a year after the invasion of Iraq. Rose posed the dreaded question: ‘Why aren’t great playwrights like you,' he asked, 'writing about this great moment that this world faces, having to do with conflict in the Middle East, in the Gulf and the great themes that are playing themselves out?’ To which Stoppard looked slightly sheepish and attempted an answer, before conceding: ‘Can you hear me blustering?’ The question is a perennial one. Why is art that confronts the ‘issues of the daily paper’ (in a wonderful Stoppard phrase at 4:21) so hard to pull off? It always has been: Shakespeare chose Elsinore rather east London; Swift wrote about Gulliver and the Yahoos rather than naming and shaming Augustan bigwigs. Could it be, perhaps, something in literature’s biological make up? Or will Achaari and Alem prove the theory wrong when they arrive on British shelves? A translation, Binyon hints, should be in the offing soon.