Is there more to life than just making a decent amount of money in the Gulf, buying a nice apartment and a car, sending one’s son to an influential university and marrying off one’s daughter? In Adel Esmat’s fifth novel, anti-hero Yusef Tadrus swims against the tide, and is promptly confronted by an earnest rigidity both social and religious in nature.
When I started reading Hikayât Yûsuf Tadrus (The Tales of Yusuf Tadrus, 2015), which won the AUC Press’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature last year and is currently in translation, I assumed it would be just another autobiographic novel, saturated with nostalgic descriptions of the author’s hometown and upbringing,
This was particularly the case since Esmat’s 253-page book starts by describing a childhood in Tanta through a first-person narrative, which for me evoked recent novels in which memory comes at the expense of a coherent and readable plot, like Mansoura Ezz-Eddin’s Ma Wara al-Fardous (Beyond Paradise, 2009), about a journalist who retreats to her village in the Delta to write a novel about her family, or Alaa Khaled’s Alam Khafif Karishet Taeir Tantalek Behudu (A Mild Pain, Like a Bird’s Feather Moving Quietly to Another Place, 2009), recounting the everyday life of five generations of an Alexandrian family and introducing innumerable characters in an endless narrative flow.
Yet an early indication that Esmat is irreversibly blending fiction and reality is the Coptic setting — I naturally assumed the author was Christian and was astonished to find out he was not.
Nevertheless The Tales of Yusuf Tadrus refuses to be pinned down to a certain era or topic. As the novel swiftly shifts from childhood to adolescence and we discover that Tadrus’ passion is painting, I again wrongly assumed the author had settled for writing the life of an artist, as in Amin Rayan’s Hafet al-Leil (The Verge of the Night, written in 1948, published in 1954), a ground-breaking though now somewhat dated novel, with dialogue in colloquial Egyptian, on a painter’s relationship with his life models.
But The Tales of Yusuf Tadrus is a kaleidoscope of ideas that encompasses multiple eras, starting from the 1960s, and touches on a wide range of topics, such as a forbidden Muslim-Christian love affair, discrimination against Christians, marital crisis, aging and the art of happiness, as Tadrus’ life consists of a sequence of personal and professional failures that lead him to accept defeat as a natural part of life, without fatalism.
The Coptic setting gives Esmat a way to experiment with religious motifs. The resurrection of Jesus becomes synonymous with starting over again and trespassing across the religious and social frames or boundaries to which we acquiescently conform. Tadrus discovers that most of his choices cannot be annulled, like his unhappy Coptic marriage with Janet, and that poorer people are unlikely to break free of their social caste, as his lack of means bars him from studying at the Faculty of Art in Alexandria and grounds him to a petty and passionless life as a teacher in Tanta.
Esmat himself was born in Tanta in 1959, and worked as a journalist, taxi driver and eventually a librarian in Alexandria, before finally winning literary recognition with the State Encouragement Award 2011 for his novel Ayam al-Nawafez al-Yarkaa (Days of the Blue Windows, 2009), about life in Tanta the wake of Egypt’s military defeat to Israel in 1967.
In many ways Esmat’s Tanta reminds me of John Updike’s American suburbia, and anti-hero Tadrus of a milder Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, Updike’s impulsive alter ego in his Rabbit quintet (1960-2001), who relentlessly seeks to break with the rigidity of American Protestant small-town middle class, and thereby questions the fragile, under-scrutinized social norms that define our existence. In Tanta, where Tadrus is similarly trapped in a life that was largely mapped out for him, futile rebellion against society is bound to result in self-destruction. Thus, when he seeks the companionship of a female Muslim colleague, he incurs the resentment of the entire local community. In the mid-1990s, when an increasing number of Muslim women put on the veil, exposing non-veiled women, Tadrus gradually perceives a catastrophic shift in Muslim–Christian relations, as each group secludes itself by living in either Muslim or Christian buildings. Tadrus’s obvious Christian name singles him out as if he is an “alien,” and a Muslim colleague doesn’t even try to conceal his resentment toward him. “Feeling that I am a Christian is starting to haunt me everywhere I go,” he confides.
A further act of resisting conformity and rigidity is Tadrus’ obsession with painting, which could be interpreted as the author insisting on the responsibility to discover and fulfill one’s individual ambitions, without which one is doomed to senselessly turn, like a wheel moving around the same central point. As such Tadrus’ talent for painting becomes a gift and a curse at the same time, and throughout the novel he oscillates between the bumpy, insecure career of a painter and that of an ordinary teacher and family man.
These chapters, in which the narrator draws analogies between the act of artistic creation and life’s perishability, contain some of the most mesmerizing reflections I have encountered in recent Egyptian fiction. “There is a seduction in every moment to see yourself in a picture,” muses Tadrus (my translation). “At night when I close my eyes to sleep, the pictures awake from their slumber and embark on an exhibition in my imagination. Everything becomes transformative and obtains a certain characteristic. If I had spent an entire day in the painting chair for example, then the other things that surround the chair exhibit their jealousy and move to the fore so I see them. The carpet flies and hangs on the wall, the tea kettle changes its shape and becomes a rude duck that stretches its neck, and the three glasses on the table exchange a dance, as if they were in a moulid. When you detect the peculiar life of these things, you lose your mind.”
At first it seems that the narrator is recounting his life story to a Muslim acquaintance, whom he reminds of prior chats. Given that Tadrus introduces all his closest associates and friends, it remains unclear to whom this account is addressed, particularly since each chapters starts with: “Yousef Tadrus says.” One interpretation could be that the narrator is addressing the author, as Esmat plays with another motif: self and image. Like in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Tadrus is fascinated with self-portraits, and endeavors to paint 99 versions of himself, no doubt a reference to the 99 attributes of God in Islam, that each embody a divine characteristic. Tadrus repeatedly recreates his own features, until they become distorted and blended with the faces of strangers he meets on the streets. One particular abstract portrayal puts a spell on him and nearly drives him out of his mind. As humans want to share immortality with God, Tadrus reflects, they suppress their own perishability, and thus lose sight of or fail to pay attention to the colorful mosaics or moments that sum up our lives.
The chapters dedicated to Tadrus’ ambitious project reminded me of Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved (2003), where art installations develop a life of their own, and as a result the imagination becomes powerful enough to destroy or create. Tadrus’ portrayals are not merely a duplication of life, but an “imitation of creation,” as he discovers that only when we create – whether love, art, literature or cherishable moments – can we counter our own perishability.