Every once in a while a writer emerges that leaves a reader in absolute awe. Egyptian novelist Youssef Rakha, already well respected in his native land, is one of these writers. With plenty of novels already under his belt, only two have been translated into English: The Sultan’s Seal and The Crocodiles. I’ve been following Rakha on Twitter for some time now, mostly due to his interesting tweets, many of which are linked to an even more fascinating blog, also called The Sultan’s Seal, which is mainly comprised of his writing, photography, as well as photography and artwork from others. So I knew it was only a matter of time before I finally delved into his fiction.
The Crocodiles is an absolutely amazing, awe inspiring work. There have been comparisons to writers of The Beat Generation, which I can see to a point (and I’m sure the fact that one of Allen Ginsberg’s poems The Lion For Real figures heavily into the narrative has a lot to do with the comparisons) but to me, he’s closer to the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño. (Readers of Bolaño will absolutely love Rakha). With that said, Rakha has his own voice and style - he doesn’t mimic Bolaño in any way but the subject matter of the novel recalls the Chilean’s love for poetry and what it represents to a society and culture - or what it should represent.
Set among the turmoil of the Egyptian revolution at the height of the “Arab Spring”, the novel is written in the form of a long prose-poem - sort of. The writing is highly poetic but there is a narrative here; and that narrative is as inventive as the novel’s structure (numbered paragraphs, no page numbers), told in a non-linear form which weaves effortlessly between past and present as it tells the story of three Egyptian youths - all poets - who form a group called The Crocodiles Movement For Secret Egyptian Poetry: Nayf, Paulo, and the narrator, Youssef (aka Gear Knob). Youssef recalls the group’s antics, thoughts and aspirations between 1997 and 2001: their explosive and complicated love affairs, the drug taking, intellectual explorations, and the retranslations of Beat poets (Nayf), mainly the Allen Ginsberg poem mentioned above. The novel is bookended by two events: the suicide of Egyptian activist Radwa Adel and the protests at Tahrir Square. Although being told while the protests are taking place, the bulk of the story ends in 2001, literally at the moment of the events of September 11th.
The symbolism of the lion (as in Ginsberg’s poem) also figures heavily in the narrative - a symbol which I’m still trying to grapple with. It could mean many things: sexual prowess, freedom, death, rage, or perhaps all of these things at the same time. As Youssef spins his tale about the group, there are a lot of allusions to Egyptian life and culture that may be lost on those who aren’t all that well read on Egypt (someone like me, for example) but it’s not so obscure that the reader can’t get the gist of what is being revealed: the class issues, the politics, the literary history - but the Western reader will find a kinship to these young idealists as they navigate their way through the changing times, each of them learning hard lessons along the way. There is also a strong sense of a generation trying to find its place in the grand scheme of history: Where do we fit in? What did we contribute, if anything? All of which culminates in the present time events as the revolution takes place (seemingly) right outside Youssef’s window.
This is a very heady book - intelligent, brilliantly written, full of interesting layers that one reading alone will not suffice. This is a book that one will (want to) come back to for repeated readings. As the Italian author Italo Calvino once observed that a classic novel “is one never finishes what it has to say”. I have no doubt that Rakha is going to be a towering figure in literature. The man’s talent is simply jaw dropping and I for one cannot wait to read his other English translated novel. This is a must read, a novel that far surpasses a lot of what so-called “Literary Fiction” is nowadays. Absolutely brilliant.