‘The Book of Khartoum’, Raph Cormack & Max Schmookler (eds.) (Review)

IMG_5463If travel broadens the mind, then reading fiction in translation must surely have its benefits, and if that is the case, Comma Press are to be thanked for their efforts to expand our horizons.  I’ve already been on their virtual tours to Gaza, Rio, Tokyo and a number of large Chinese cities, and today’s post sees the latest trip in the publisher’s capable hands.  We’re off to Africa, and while it’s a fairly brief experience, it’s one that will provide some lasting memories🙂

*****
The Book of Khartoum (edited by Raph Cormack and Max Shmookler, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is the latest in Comma Press’ series of city guide short-story anthologies, bringing together ten stories from contemporary Sudanese writers which are set, or deal with, the country’s capital city.  It has to be said that it’s a fairly short collection, with many of the stories only running to a few pages, but it makes up for that in terms of quality as I couldn’t really find a bad one among them.

Most of the stories are set in the present, or the fairly recent past, but the final piece, Hammour Ziada’s ‘The Void’ (translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid) is a lengthy piece of historical fiction.  It features a soldier from the defeated Muslim forces of the late-nineteenth century, trying to come to terms with the humiliation suffered at the hands of the British (and their infernal machine guns…).  Even if the need for footnotes (and they are most certainly required) interrupts the flow a little, the writing is excellent, and the soldier’s conversation with his sister, interspersed with quotations and poems from the time, draws the reader back to the broken, conquered city, creating a melancholy mood.

Continuing the military theme is the opening story, Ahmed al-Malik’s ‘The Tank’ (tr. Adam Talib), but there’s certainly nothing melancholy about this one.  A lazy, unsuccessful middle-aged man finds that his life has become a whole lot smoother since the purchase of a rather unusual vehicle:

It’s been a week since I took delivery of the tank, which I bought from a middleman who lives nearby.  The deal has worked out beautifully, but the sight of it parked under the neem tree in front of our house did come as a shock to a few of my friends.  It hasn’t escaped my notice that most of them haven’t visited since.
‘The Tank’, p.1 (Comma Press, 2016)

Whether it’s complete fiction or a clever examination of how nepotism and corruption pervade society, al-Malik’s tale makes for an entertaining, well-constructed start to the collection.

This isn’t the only work in The Book of Khartoum with a touch of humour either.  Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin’s ‘The Butcher’s Daughter’ (tr. Raph Cormack) has a country father visit the big city after hearing some disturbing rumours about his daughter.  A story which in other hands might have ended in tragedy instead becomes a short piece akin to a Shakespearean comedy.  There’s also a light-hearted feel to much of Bushra al-Fadil’s ‘The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away’ (tr. Max Shmookler), in which a self-proclaimed poet has an eye for Khartoum’s busy streets and a beautiful woman he sees on them, even if the ending is a little more somber (and suspicious…).

As much as the collection looks at city life, though, there’s a theme running through many of the stories of the interaction between the capital and the villages surrounding it.  In Ali al-Makk’s ‘In the City’ (tr. Sarah Irving), a cocky boy from the country is sadly mistaken when he thinks his charms are anything new for the city folk.  A slightly more subtle approach is taken by Bawadir Bashir in her contribution ‘Next Eid’ (tr. Thoraya El-Rayyes), where a village is proud of one of its native sons on his annual visit.  Little do they know that his life in Khartoum is rather more difficult than they might have imagined…

As well as being thought-provoking, ‘Next Eid’ is elegantly written, and this is a feature of the book as a whole, with the original Arabic’s lyrical style brought skilfully into English in all of the stories.  Mamoun Eltlib’s ‘The Passage’ (tr. Mohamed Ghaleiny) is an allegorical, poetic piece on Khartoum, while Rania Mamoun’s ‘Passing’ (tr. Elisabeth Jaquette) beautifully describes a woman’s feelings on the death of her father:

Your scent opens channels of memory, it invades me without warning, like armies of ants stinging me fiercely, chaotically: on my eyes, my skin, in my pores, my blood, even my ears, as they pick up the vibrations of your voice drawing closer.  I’m flooded with memories…
‘Passing’, pp.29/30

The success of the writing is not just down to the language used but also to the creative use of structure.  Perhaps the best example of this is Isa al-Hilu’s story ‘A Boy Playing with Dolls’ (tr. Marilyn Booth), in which the short scenes, stories within stories, leave the reader unsure as to whether the events described are happening in real life or are being played out by the young protagonist.

For the most part, The Book of Khartoum skirts around political issues (apart from those of the nineteenth century, of course), but one story which does touch on weightier matters is Arthur Gabriel Yak’s ‘It’s Not Important, You’re From There’ (tr. Andrew Leber).  Yak is from South Sudan, and the topic of his piece is fairly clear:

Because, of course, you’ll die that day, when the hour and minutes spell out the letters of that curse: ‘REJECTED!’  With that word uttered, your spirit will leave your body.  How heavy refugees’ corpses are!  Your corpse will be a heavy burden for us.
‘It’s Not Important, You’re From There’, p.22

With his slightly hazy description of a man looking for a new life, Yak offers a reminder that past troubles have spilled over into the present day (and, sadly, haven’t entirely been settled).

As mentioned, this is a short work, but with an excellent introduction and ten fascinating stories, The Book of Khartoum is definitely worth checking out.  Arabic-language literature hasn’t featured that highly on my reading list, I’m sorry to say (in fact, much of the little I have read has come from Comma Press…), but this collection certainly hasn’t put me off reading more in the future.  I won’t claim that I now know all there is to know about Khartoum, but I’m definitely a little more au-fait with the Sudanese capital than I was before – and I highly recommend taking the (virtual) trip🙂

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