In ancient Greek, “hepta” means number seven. To the psychologist and relationship specialist who narrates Mohamed Sadek’s novel “Hepta,” it represents the seven stages of love.
Published this year by Arabic-language publisher Al-Rowaq, “Hepta” is 27-year-old Sadek’s third book. His first, “Taha al-Ghareeb,” was published in 2010 and his second, “Bedeia Saat men Youmin Ma” (A Few Hours of a Certain Day) two years later.
The book is doing very well. The cover has a torn playing card on it, a seven of hearts, with “Hepta” on top in big red font. In a corner there’s a mark indicating that this is a 10th edition copy: 10 editions printed, all in 2014. It was recommended to me by the Diwan bookstore employees, who said the author had a book signing there and it was a big success.
I was intrigued, and had not read anything by Sadek, so I bought it.
Osama Hafez, the narrator, explains his theory in a six-hour seminar or life-coaching session that’s the focus of the book. It’s not clear how many people attend, and we discover little about the attendees apart from age range, gender and first name. But each is apparently paying to discover the meaning of love, and each is given a textbook detailing the romantic experiences of four male protagonists that Hafez refers to as A, B, C and D.
Each of these faceless cases goes through Hafez’s seven stages: the beginning, the encounter, the relationship, the wakefulness, the truth, the decision, and then the ending, or hepta.
A is a passive, almost suicidal man in his late thirties desperately looking for thrill. B is a 17-year-old orphan suffering from an illness that may leave him in pain for the rest of his life. C is 25, a popular and talented painter. D is a 7-year-old boy who witnesses his mother’s suicide. All four have different romantic involvements: A is in love with his neighbor Roaa, B loves his best friend Donia, C poaches Ola from her boyfriend and proposes to her, and little D is in love with is playmate Marwa.
“Hepta” is about life, hurt, disappointment, infidelity, death and love — topics that have been used and abused in millions of novels, soaps, movies, poems, plays, self-help books, school yards and campuses. Sadek tried to spice these topics up and give them edginess with his seven stages. But unfortunately they come across as seven stages of ennui, and each only prolongs the reader’s agony.
“This is stupid,” says one seminar attendee as Hafez discusses the romantic experiences of his cases, and as a reader it’s difficult to disagree.
Sadek acknowledges the false feeling of anticipation created by the stages, as if the monotony is meant to be part of the reading experience. On page 97 of the 222-page novel, he writes, “Now we have finished stage two, a stage most of you have seen in movies and soap operas.”
At the end it’s revealed that A, B, C and D are the same person in various stages of life. With my average IQ, I figured that out on page 61. I don’t know if Sadek meant for his big “surprise” to be that palpable in the novel’s first quarter, but the utter shock of Hafez’s students when they realize the trick suggests not.
The novel’s language is poor, sappy and annoying, showing an unusual lack of creativity. Reading it, I felt I was being repeatedly bombarded with one corny dialog after another.
“He put his hand on her waist, held her hand and started dancing under the rain. He asks her, are you happy? She yells: I love you, you fool,” reads a typical example.
“He took her hand and fell on the bed,” reads another. “She looked at him and laughed while he leaned in to kiss her.”
“Hepta” fools you into reading on by relying on your trust that a book cannot possibly be that tacky. But it is. It is a recitation of the most well-known romantic clichés paired with a forced, fake sense of depth achieved through a feeble theory named after a Greek number.
Love is a universally appealing topic. Books about love sell well everywhere, which is good for authors and publishers. But the fact that this one is doing so well must say a lot about our general taste. It’s sad that a wonderfully, strangely written novel like “Nesaaal-Karantina” (Women of Karantina, Merit, 2013) by Nael al-Toukhy is still only in its second edition, while this book of clichés is lapped up by so many readers. Books of this sort don’t need much thinking and appeal to an audience that doesn’t want to use their heads.
Perhaps it’s been so successful because it spares people the embarrassment that goes with reading cheap romantic novels as it looks cleverer than that. The novel’s trick is that it pretends to be intellectual while heavily relying on cheap sensational language.
There are no reviews to be found of “Hepta” in the newspapers. On Goodreads.com it does well though: “A wonderful book; taught me the real meaning of depth,” writes one reviewer. “This novel spoke to my soul,” explains another.
But I couldn’t help feeling that “Hepta” was simply a waste of LE25.