The Absent Baba. “Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt”

Regular readers of the New York Review of Books are familiar with dispatches from Egypt by Yasmine El Rashidi. Her reporting is notable for combining a depth of understanding of the country’s dilemmas and an empathy for the difficult times it currently endures. She has now published a novel, “ Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt”, which belongs in the collection of anyone seeking to understand where the country stands today.

The novel avoids complex plotting and extended characters, which lends it a well-crafted depth. Many passages are worth reading multiple times to unearth clues to the narrator’s internal state of mind. The book adopts a conventional device of three episodes in the life of a female Egyptian,  as a young girl, as a woman entering adulthood, and as a grown woman. These episodes are roughly a decade and a half apart, concluding in the present time. Each episode depicts a threshold, a moment of change but with no clear destination. It is a fitting metaphor for the narrator who is born between the “Bread Riots” of 1977 and the assassination of Sadat in 1981, Egypt’s inflection point. She is of the Mubarak generation, when a certain stability set in, marked by both conservatism and decay. The novel is full of allusions to that, symbolized by the physical decay of the narrator’s house and the surrounding once-lush neighborhood, the emotional decay of her mother as she endures the absence of her husband, and of extended family members as they age and die. The novel has few characters, but all of them undergo a process of disillusionment. Her mother is loving but is consumed with a sense of loss, as many of her friends departed the country during the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s. Cousin Dido, is politically active, but to little effect, save his personal suffering. “Uncle” is astute and observant, but the country ultimately wears him out. Yet, the book manages to avoid grimness through well-observed quotidian details, and the most Egyptian of medicines, sly humor. And although the novel has little action, it is propelled forward by the seemingly coiled energy of the narrator.

The real protagonist of the novel is the absent father, the hidden Baba. He disappears from the family while the narrator is a child, and reappears again when she is an adult. No reason is given, which is typical of the inscrutability of official Egypt. Perhaps it was politics, or a business deal gone bad, but Baba disappeared one day. The young girl is left longing for him, and in a searing passage, trying to discern his remaining scent around the house, in his room, and by pulling his drawers slightly ajar. The obliqueness allows readers familiar with Egypt to fill in the details without burdening the novel with didacticism. The narrator occasionally spies Mubarak on TV, and his wife, Baba Mubarak and Mama Suzanne. But she remains unconvinced by the charade. When Baba finally reappears the daughter is no longer interested in finding out what happened, nor does she question him closely, but notes how he fits in easily with other older men who talk idly about lost times. The subtitle of the book, “A Novel of Egypt”, hints at the weight of the absent father as a metaphor for the country’s lost ways. Patriarchy remains powerful but ineffective. Rulers play the father, and fathers rule, but to good end in both cases. Subtly, the novel draws out the personal from the political, and vice versa. As a revolution, really an explosion, approaches, the ruler asks pity as a father, but offers little beyond requests for obedience and acceptance of discipline. The muteness of the absence of the narrator’s father, and lack of explanation for his absence both point to a country grown alienated from its soul by the daily grind of a difficult existence. This is the terror at the heart of the novel, rather than the occasional reference to random terrorism or political violence.

The novel works well because, whatever the intentions of the author are, each reader is invited to pencil in a favorite absent Baba. Decades after a brief meeting with Nasser, and of attempts to understand and come to grips with his actions and legacy, what remains of the man most powerfully is his scent. The imposing and handsome man in a well-cut American-style jacket and worn shoes smiled broadly and smelled of aftershave and cigarettes. Thereafter, freedom was found in a life free of both.

— Maged Atiya

 



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