Cities on our reading list

Sun 13 Aug 2017

In this unfolding year of extraordinary fiction, Omar Robert Hamilton’s The City Always Wins is already a standout novel. A filmmaker who saw the events of the ‘Egyptian Revolution’ of 2011 and its aftermath up close, Hamilton explores how the uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the initial exhilaration at ushering in a democratised order, and then the waves of repression and the setbacks changed the interior lives of people. Ever since General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (subsequently elected president) removed Mohamed Morsi in 2013 — perhaps even before as Morsi’s regime lost the confidence of many who had rallied against Hosni Mubarak — it has been difficult to get a sense of where the revolution is at, whether it is in fact still a work in progress, or how the ideas that sparked the Tahrir uprising have shifted around.

Even as Hamilton’s debut novel provides grist for us to add more questions to that list, it is remarkable how familiar the Cairo of The City Always Wins appears. It’s perhaps not just that when the international media descended on the city in 2011, the non-stop coverage immersed us in the events and locales of the revolution. The fiction of writers such as Naguib Mahfouz, Alaa Al Aswany and Ahdaf Soueif (who happens to be Hamilton’s mother) had already enabled us to inhabit Cairo in our imaginations — so that all it took was a little help from Google maps for us to find our bearings in this great city amid the newscasts.

Fiction as a guide

Finding one’s way in a new city with the help of fiction alone is what a writer does in one of the travelogues collected in Footsteps: From Ferrante’s Naples to Hammett’s San Francisco, Literary Pilgrimages Around the World . Ann Mah’s essay was published in The New York Times (where all these travelogues first appeared) in January 2016 when Elena Ferrante’s identity was more of a mystery. (An Italian journalist subsequently claimed to have outed Rome-based translator Anita Raja as the person behind the pseudonym.) Mah says all she had for a guide to Naples were Ferrante’s wildly popular four Neapolitan novels, and no guidebook or map even, at a time when it was not even known whether ‘Elena Ferrante’ was, in fact, a man or woman. For: “To view the Naples of Ferrante is to view Naples like a native.”

That’s an ambition, however unrealisable, shared by most travellers, isn’t it, to find oneself in a new city and to be enabled to go around as if one is an inhabitant already? As it happens, Mah takes the help of a “Naples native” to zero in on the neighbourhood that matches Ferrante’s descriptions of where Elena and Lila, the two women at the heart of the Neapolitan series, spent their childhood.

Others in this collection have the writers’ coordinates as they go exploring, and those tend to influence the itinerary. Among the most haunting, even more than the efforts to find Jorge Luis Borges’s Buenos Aires or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Mompos, is Michelle Green’s stay in Taprobane in Sri Lanka to find glimpses of Paul Bowles’s time there. Taprobane is a privately owned island with just one villa that is now a luxury resort. But it was once, in the mid-twentieth century, under the ownership of Bowles, author most famously of The Sheltering Sky and who’s more often associated with Tangier in Morocco. Bowles wrote about Taprobane that “there’s nothing between you and the South Pole”, given its location off the coast of Sri Lanka, and it’s a description tourist guides still use. But not much remains by way of material connect from that time, and Green instead wanders around the well-provided resort recalling Bowles’s stay there. His wife, who had a difficult time in Taprobane, said of it when she first arrived: “I can see why you like it. It’s a Poe story.” It’s enough to separate the reader from the neat, well-appointed villa of the tourist brochures today, and throw us into the imagery of a house with an overgrown garden, with “the nightly invasion of bats” and “vegetable life” so powerful that it led him to write: “It’s a rather unpleasant sensation on the whole, to feel very strongly that plants are not inert and not insentient.”

Seeing like a native

And for those of us who are cricket fans, especially of the West Indies game, Monica Drake’s tour of Antigua with Jamaica Kincaid’s books as her guide is special too. On this island advertised for its 365 beaches, Kincaid is a necessary author. As Drake quotes her from memoir A Small Place : “An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist… a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness...” It takes a book to know that to think it is possible to see a new place like a native is, after all, the visitor’s conceit.


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