Bahaa Taher, Sunset Oasis (2007. Translation by Humphrey Davies, McClelland and Stewart 2009)
This won the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008. If successive winners are as good as this, then it’s a prize to watch. Set in the late nineteenth century, mostly in the Egyptian oasis of Siwa, the narrative centres on Mahmoud Abd el Zahir, who is sent to the oasis as government representative, and his Irish wife, Catherine, who accompanies him on this dangerous assignment (previous government representatives have been murdered by the oasis-dwellers) because of Siwa’s historical connection with Alexander the Great – she dreams of discovering his tomb there. There’s a vivid sense of the time and place, of the complex politics of an Egypt recently occupied by the British, now in effect passing on the mistreatment to the ethnic minority in the oasis, of the challenges of intercultural relationships, of Egypt’s multi-layered past. Catherine and others are fascinated by antiquity, Mahmoud struggles to come to terms with his own experience in recent upheavals, the people of the oasis have their own internecine history. In the oasis, Easterners and Westerners have a long history of self-perpetuating warfare, and various ones of their leaders are convinced that peace can come only when one side of the struggle or the other is completely wiped out. It’s hard not to read this as a sly reference to our current global clash between Easterners and Westerners.
The book is beautifully written, and constantly fresh and surprising. It’s narrative switches effortlessly between Mahmoud, Catherine and a number of other characters including, brilliantly, Alexander the Great. I was initially disappointed by the ending (it’s all right, no spoilers), but on reflection I realised that it opened the narrative out to great depths of meaning.
After all my recent whingeing about reading works in translation, I’m glad to report that Sunset Oasis reads beautifully in English. So much so, I needed to remind myself regularly that it was originally written in Arabic. I found a wonderful interview with Humphrey Davies, the translator, at The Quarterly Conversation, which ends:
The first draft of a book is very heavy lifting. It hurts my eyes in particular; it’s a real strain on my eyes. At the end of the day, I’m pretty gobsmacked. The most pleasurable part is when the first draft comes back from the editor with questions, and then you can see the shape of it. You can start fine tuning and tweaking and coming up with nice little things.
So there you go. This translator gets to have an editor go over his first draft in detail, and is then paid good money to refine the work. This reader considers that extra money well spent – and, take note publishers, that opinion may well translate into sales. Both Bahaa Taher and Humphrey Davies are on my list of people to trust.
I’m posting in a bit of a rush, because this book was a Book Club borrow, and the meeting where I’m to return it is due to happen in about 15 minutes. So here you are, just ahead of the deadline. [I’m returning three books. The other two I couldn’t get past 100 pages. So it’s not only a joy but a relief to have enjoyed this so much.]