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The burden of the witness: Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer
 
 

The first thing our nameless child narrator tells us about is the heat. The blistering, suffocating Cairo summers, spent indoors with the blinds drawn, set to the constant whirr of old electric fans.

It is over three such summers, the only kind the city has to offer, that Yasmine El Rashidi’s quietly observant debut novel unfolds. Published this month by Tim Duggan Books, Chronicle of a Last Summer traces the life of an Egyptian girl as a child living under the rule of newly appointed President Hosni Mubarak in 1984, as a college student grappling with notions of fate, participation and defeat in 1998, and in 2014 as a writer living in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, with all that that entails.

The novel’s sparse but gentle prose seamlessly navigates through all these modes of existence, through the narrator’s first-person, stream-of-consciousness account of those three pivotal summers.

The summers the author chooses to recount are not necessarily pivotal in and of themselves, but they do closely follow historical moments that were. We enter our narrator’s life a few years after the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat, then again in the year following the Luxor massacre, and again a year after the violent dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in. It is this sensitivity to timing — placing the reader close enough to the event to feel its reverberations, but far enough to maintain the detachment of observation — that allows the narrative to preserve its sense of slowness and resignation, and saves this novel from being what I initially suspected it was: a crash course in Egypt’s modern history, intended for the eyes of a foreign, primarily English-speaking audience.

But it is much more. It is a snapshot of the oppressiveness of childhood at large, of how it feels to inhabit a world of gentle reprimands, good posture, bedtimes and propriety; a poetic exploration of time, loss and absence, conveying much through what is left unsaid.

In 1984, our young narrator idles through her days in her large family mansion in the company of her emotionally reserved mother. She spends her time absorbing much, but understanding little, of the conversations of adults surrounding her, sifting through family photos of her dead grandmother and aunt, and counting the days till the return of her mysteriously absent father.

Absence and silence feature prominently throughout the text, and seep into Rashidi’s writing style as well. She hints at the security state’s practice of disappearing people multiple times: when a housekeeper who stole from the family is taken away, when a fruit vendor is taken off the street as our narrator walks home from school, when she writes a story about “the disappearing people” for class and is told never to talk about such things.

Rashidi’s witty, minimalist style is well-suited to the musings of a child, and caused me to cynically smile to myself on more than one occasion, such as when the narrator’s mother tries to teach her daughter a life lesson: “I asked her who would teach me about life being unfair. She said time.”

Our narrator’s surroundings are conveyed through a series of evocative images, carefully selected for their weighty symbolism: the household furniture kept covered in plastic and the untouched glass cabinet displays “like time capsules, offering panoramic views of every year until the present one”; the mango trees that our narrator waits to see fruit every summer, but don’t; the adult VHS tapes kept on a higher shelf out of reach; the soft loaves of fino bread delivered in black plastic bags to hide the dirt; the nighttime summer power cuts and the forced silence they bring.

Although this section of the novel beautifully captures the stifling anxiety of childhood, I found it difficult to believe that a 6-year-old could be so observant as to recount elaborate conversations on the intricacies of the country’s politics.  These political summaries are presented in the form of conversations with Dido, the older Communist/activist cousin, or Uncle, the opinionated, potbellied frequent household guest. My disbelief aside (perhaps our narrator is simply a precocious child), these segments seemed designed to bring the less familiar reader up to speed.

“Have I learned about the Free Officers? I shake my head. They launched the revolution that saved Egypt from the British. They got rid of the King. They made Egypt independent. Baba’s uncle was a free officer. He was the most principled man in the revolution.”

Away from the political content, Rashidi’s writing shines in the introspective self-analytical monologues that bluntly pose the existential questions of our generation.

“Have we inherited defeat, the very spirit of it? Is it seeped into who we are? Do we have to reconcile with out parents’ losses to build again?” our narrator writes in her notebook. “I circle this and think about all that I feel has been stolen from me, from us. I wonder if anger is too simple a word, too reductive.”

Although Rashidi’s narrative is comforting in that it is extremely relatable (at least, to me), its familiarity was somehow off-putting. I felt I was reading what could easily have been an account of my own life and an account of my mother’s combined (since the narrator inhabits that generation smack in the middle of both). From my completely subjective, and very similar, position, I found the narrative to be simultaneously charming and all-too-familiar, like how Rashidi describes “the silences and the evenings in front of the TV [being] as comforting as they are fraught.” That said, I imagine the details I perceived as somewhat banal could be enriching to a reader with less local context.

But every detail, no matter how banal, is of value to our narrator. She has always been a keen observer of her surroundings, gathering material for her film-turned-novel.

“Could I build all this into what I’m writing, the script, the eventual film?” she wonders. “I want to do something different, merge forms, speak to people on the street about their desires, and also capture this internal life, the intimate moments at home, the mundane. How did we land in our lives?”

Chronicle of a Last Summer succeeds at much of this, but in its efforts to merge forms, to reconcile the private and the public into one narrative, it seemed to fall somewhere between the overt symbolism and primary source-reliance of Sonallah Ibrahim’s Zaat, and the hilarious solipsism of Wagih Ghali’sBeer in the Snooker Club, leaving me uncertain as to whether I wanted more politics or more intimacy in the narrative. Both the protagonist’s personal narrative and the country’s political happenings feel secondary throughout the novel, striking an unusual balance that leaves us with silence and absence in the foreground.

The novel’s title pays tribute to Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s landmark 1961 documentary Chronique d’un été, one of the first examples of cinéma vérité (the term was coined by Rouch himself), which is characterized, most importantly, by its attempts to capture a direct, unscripted reality. The genre attempts to get at the core of questions that feature prominently in Rashidi’s novel: whether there is such a thing as an objective truth, and what it means to be an observer.

“I wonder if my position is too often ambiguous,” muses our narrator in the third chapter of her life. “I think a lot about what it means to be a witness, the responsibility of it … Is the silence of objectivity and being an observer, witness, the same as complicity?”

Our narrator seems like an observer even to her own life. Throughout the novel, she actively does very little. She narrates her actions and observations in short, present-tense sentences — notes on her own existence.

In a way, this novel is the culmination of these notes, but it is also the notes themselves. It is both the writing process and the product. It is the novel the narrator constantly talks about writing, within the novel she has already written.

And it is a novel to be admired for its honesty and sincerity. It is an unapologetic text that makes no excuses, poses multiple questions and offers no solutions to our shattered dreams and general malaise. Except maybe one.

“I now realize that it takes either a larger trauma or fleeting euphoria to erase what was. I can’t imagine what might efface our most recent disappointments, except maybe the passing incandescence of love.”

But over the book’s 180 pages, the trauma never really happens, or at least we never witness it. We see only the aftermath, the traces of things that once were. We catch a word hurriedly whispered, steal a fleeting glance at a mother’s tensed shoulders, at the mango trees in the garden that haven’t borne fruit in years, at the Nile Corniche, now obscured by fences and concrete. We hear the “outbursts of ululations, the fireworks, music, shrieks,” that invite, but don’t really include us, and we resign ourselves to the timeless wisdom of Uncle, “that to be a witness to history is a burden for the chosen.”

Then we pick up our notebooks, our fragments of hope and memory, and shuffle outside into the ever-sweltering Cairo summer.

This review was commissioned and edited by Habiba Effat.

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Lara El Gibaly