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5.0 out of 5 stars Seminal novella about Egypt in the 1960s, 7 May 2014
This review is from: That Smell and Notes from Prison (Ndp) (Paperback)
Egypt has from earliest times been a byword for slavery, inequality and injustice. This book is about oppression under Nasser, who ended Egypt’s eternal rule by pharaohs, foreign emperors, sultans and kings in 1952. Whereupon a new type of dynastic rule began. Sonallah Ibrahim (b. 1937; SI)’s debut was confiscated by the authorities shortly after publication in 1966. It was first published in English in Heinemann’s wonderful AWS (African Writers Series) in 1971, translated by Denys Johnson Davies. Who did much to convert the original Arabic version into more a conventional Western-style work, using indentations and other tricks. I own both editions and can affirm that the two versions are quite different.

This new edition has four parts. It begins with a brilliant introduction by the new translator, Robin Creswell (RC), who explains the state of mind of SI when writing the book, its publishing history and how SI spent 1959-1964 in prison in Egypt’s western desert for political reasons, yearning for things to read and pondering how to write in future, aided by smuggled reviews of Western and Soviet literature from Cairo newspapers’ cultural supplements.

The novella is a short work written by a stunned, baffled person, just released from years in prison, now under house arrest, observing and registering what he sees around him, never commenting, never judging, let alone acting. The writing is bleak, which was new to the Arab world.

This harsh and challenging booklet is followed by an introduction to its 1986 edition by the author himself, whose content may surprise some readers. Finally, early on in his introduction, RC prepared readers for the final part of this book, a selection of the prison notes Sonallah Ibrahim managed to smuggle out. They shed more light on his struggle with conventional writing and his search for a new way of picturing life as it is.

I much enjoyed “Beer in the Snooker Club” by Waguih Ghali about 1950s Cairo’s bored young upper class and their hangers-on. This is something else in terms of motive, context and style, but well worth reading too.
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That Smell and Notes from Prison (Ndp)
That Smell and Notes from Prison (Ndp) by Robyn Creswell (Paperback - 5 Feb 2013)
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