Paul Auster and Don DeLillo, to whom he has dedicated his new novel, Leviathan, share more than a friendship.1 Both have been celebrated as bleak, cerebral visionaries; both are preoccupied with the surprising patterns of connection and correspondence that underlie the world’s supposed chaos; both share a fascination with language and a penchant for name games. But there is a dramatic difference between the two. Auster is one of our finest novelists: in his most recent novels, Moon Palace (1989) and The Music of Chance (1990), he brilliantly captures the way in which life, though seemingly random, proves to be shot through with startling similitudes; in these books, truth is uncovered with difficulty and in stages, and invariably proves to be extraordinary. Yet extraordinary though it is, that truth is never quite unbelievable. Proceeding step by step from the familiar to the outlandish, Auster makes one believe even as one marvels; and he makes one feel both exhilaration and distress as his characters become gradually aware of their confinement in a prison of patterns, aware of the apparently magical bonds that underlie their key relationships and that have covertly predetermined their major decisions.
Auster’s vision is of a world penetrated by coincidence, a world where chance occurrences can change a life, a world where everyone—even the most solitary of individuals—is in reality an unknowing element of some overarching design. If in his early novels Auster conveys this vision in ways that often seem contrived and pretentious, so that he can appear interested chiefly in drawing attention to his own cleverness, in his later fiction Auster becomes increasingly good at drawing the reader in on a human level, at making his vision felt.
In DeLillo’s less accomplished but more celebrated novels, by contrast, while there is much talk of the world’s confining systems and structures, there is very little of Auster’s suspense, his gradually escalating sense of dread and panic and wonder. One problem with DeLillo is that he depicts this confinement not as an abiding human reality but as a circumstance peculiar to contemporary America, with the result that one after another of his novels comes down, thematically, to a single message that is as tiresome as it is politically correct: namely, that we live in an inhuman, assembly-line consumer culture, a land of cliques, cabals, cults, conspiracies, computer systems, and corporate bureaucracies. To be sure, DeLillo’s preoccupation with the question of national identity places him in good company: since the Republic’s early days, many novelists have felt compelled to reflect upon the question of who we Americans are and of what distinguishes us from our Old World cousins, so that in many a would-be Great American Novel the mysteries of the human condition have seemed almost ancillary to the American enigma. Even Auster has made considerable thematic use of America and its history: Hiroshima and Apollo 11 figure prominently in Moon Palace; The Music of Chance features an ironic reference to “America . . . home of the goddamn free.” But in those books the American mystery is only a facet of life’s mystery; the limitations of American freedoms are only an instance in the limitations of life’s freedoms. DeLillo, by contrast, has often seemed to be concerned more with the parochial than with the eternal, more with the making of sociopolitical statements than with the making of art, his novels tending less toward the complex and penetrating artistry of, say, Henry James’s The American than toward the facile fatalism of Norman Mailer’s An American Dream. (Indeed, in the age of Mailer, it has sometimes seemed that the sole universally recognized mark of a serious American novelist is the tiresome persistence with which his novels insist upon the failure of the American dream and the corruption of the national destiny.)
What compounds the failure of DeLillo’s fiction is that his would-be vision of life never comes to life: his characters remain stubbornly one-dimensional, and consequently one can’t believe in or care about their entrapment in technological or corporate or bureaucratic mazes. Whenever one of them makes a speech about “[t]he networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies” or suchlike (to quote an ironic celebration of bank machines by the protagonist of DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise), it invariably sounds glib and heavyhanded, and one never feels as if the voice is that of anyone other than DeLillo. If one emerges from an Auster book, then, feeling that its author is profoundly gripped by, and has succeeded in communicating, a distinctive vision of life, one emerges from a DeLillo book feeling that he has been struggling to impress one with a modishly grim picture of contemporary America that he may well credit in some superficial, intellectual way, but that does not possess him at any deep level.
The good news about Leviathan is that in many ways it does recall Auster’s own best books; the bad news is that it also reminds one very much of DeLillo. In fact, alongside Moon Palace and The Music of Chance, Leviathan seems less pure and passionate, more facile and familiar; its title even sounds like something DeLillo might have come up with. A leviathan is a sea-serpent; the word appears several times in the Bible and, in that most American of American novels, Moby-Dick, is frequently used by Ishmael in his discourses upon the various kinds of whales. Leviathan is also, of course, the title of the 1651 classic in which Thomas Hobbes characterized the British Empire as a proud serpent, a “political organism,” and thereby gave the word an additional meaning: “a bureaucratic, totalitarian state.”
This is plainly the meaning that Auster has in mind here: for his Leviathan is the story of a brilliant New York writer named Ben Sachs who—born the day the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, devoted to Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience,” obsessed with American history, and gifted (or plagued) with an “attitude of remorseless inner vigilance”—quits writing to become a terrorist. Calling himself “The Phantom of Liberty,” he travels around the country exploding Statue of Liberty replicas in town squares and parks around the U.S. and leaving notes demanding that Americans practice the democracy they preach. The novel’s narrator, Peter Aaron, makes it clear at the outset that his friend Sachs has recently died in an explosion in Wisconsin and that he, Aaron, is rushing to complete his chronicle of Sachs’s life before the FBI puts the big pieces of that life together and comes to Aaron to fill in the details.
Aaron—whose similarity to Auster extends beyond the initials of their names (like his creator, Aaron spent some years in France during his youth; the title of his novel Luna recalls that of Moon Palace; the name of his second wife, Iris, is an anagram for the given name of Auster’s wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt)—tells us that he met and befriended Sachs when they were both young writers, not long after the publication of Sachs’s promising first novel. That novel, The New Colossus (whose title, of course, is taken from Emma Lazarus’s poem about the Statue of Liberty), sounds in Aaron’s description rather like E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Informed by the conviction that America had lost its way since Thoreau’s death, The New Colossus is set in the nineteenth century; its cast includes both historical figures (among them Ralph Waldo Emerson and Sitting Bull) and borrowed fictional characters (Huck Finn, Raskolnikov, Ishmael). Many years after writing The New Colossus, Sachs began, but never completed, a second novel, Leviathan (in tribute to which Aaron has named his own book); but he spent most of his career as a writer of opinion pieces.
That career ended with a near-fatal fall from a Brooklyn fire escape on the hundredth anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.
That career ended with a near-fatal fall from a Brooklyn fire escape on the hundredth anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. The fall shook Sachs’s composure, and he moved to the Vermont countryside, where in a chance back-road encounter he was forced to kill a gunslinging stranger in order to save himself; in a typical Auster coincidence, the stranger proved to be none other than Reed Dimaggio, the estranged husband of one Lillian, the bosom buddy of Sachs’s New York friend Maria, who had inadvertently caused his fire-escape accident. After learning that Dimaggio had written a doctoral dissertation on the anarchist Alexander Berkman and had then become a terrorist himself, Sachs decided to pick up where Dimaggio had left off; thus was born the “Phantom of Liberty.” Sachs later explained to Aaron that he wanted to “redeem” himself, to “take a stand for what I believed in, to make the kind of difference I had never been able to make before. All of a sudden, my life seemed to make sense to me.”
Aaron sums up Sachs’s story thusly: “In fifteen years, Sachs traveled from one end of himself to the other.” Such a journey—from familiar psychological territory to borderlands that seem utterly alien—is at the center of most of Auster’s novels. So is the juxtaposition of intellectual and physical activity: here, as ever, Auster wants us to contemplate the relation—moral, metaphysical, and otherwise—between literature and activism, between someone who travels to a different part of himself by writing works of fiction and someone who does so by driving back and forth across the country (a familiar motif in Auster’s novels) to commit acts of violence. Aaron says that Sachs, when recounting his career as the Phantom of Liberty, “talked with the assurance of an artist who knows he has just created his most important work”; toward the novel’s end, Sachs pays Aaron a compliment that sounds backhanded: “I admire you for your innocence, for the way you’ve stuck to this one thing [i.e., writing] for your whole life.” What, Auster is asking, is the connection between literary creation and political action? Is an author’s highest obligation to art or to social justice? Where does true innocence lie? (Who, after all, but a quintessential—if mad—American innocent would become the Phantom of Liberty?)
There’s a lot of talk here about the relation of words and actions, and particularly about the power of writing to generate an illusion of reality. “Without even knowing it,” Aaron tells us, “I enter the lives of strangers, and for as long as they have my book in their hands, my words are the only reality that exists for them.” Sachs brags to Aaron that “I make up stories about my imaginary conquests, and Fanny [his wife] listens. It excites her. Words have power, after all.” Written words play a major role in the plot: Aaron decides to become separated from his first wife after he reads a scathing entry in her private journal; he meets Sachs because Sachs admires a story of his; and the novel’s main sequence of events is set in motion by Maria’s discovery of an address book in the street. One of the addresses leads her to her old friend Lillian; another leads Lillian to her future spouse, Dimaggio. The point: books can be magical. As Aaron puts it: “Maria opened the book, and out flew the devil, out flew a scourge of violence, mayhem, and death.” Names hold mystical meaning: Peter Aaron’s names (the first being that of Christ’s chief disciple, the second that of Moses’s brother and spokesman) reflect his role as Sachs’s admirer, spiritual brother, and chronicler; and the name of Reed Dimaggio, who abandons a conventional academic career to become an anarchist, appropriately suggests two very different American heroes: Joe DiMaggio and John Reed. (Among the book’s minor characters, moreover, is one Valerie Maas—a relative, perhaps, of Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49?)
Where does truth reside? What is knowable, dependable, predictable? Noting that Sachs and Fanny told different stories, both equally persuasive, about their private life, Aaron concludes that there is “no universal truth,” and certainly no divinable truth: “the real is always ahead of what we can imagine. No matter how wild we think our inventions might be, they can never match the unpredictability of what the real world continually spews forth.” Aaron comes to view his friends as symbols of this unknowability and unpredictability: Maria (who performs avant-garde “studies in the shifting nature of the self”) is “the reigning spirit of chance, as goddess of the unpredictable”; Sachs is “a symptom of my ignorance about all things, an emblem of the unknowable itself.” (It is as if they are not real people at all, but only characters in a book.) Aaron suggests, moreover, that novels live to the extent that they reflect the unknowable, unfathomable, and unpredictable character of life: “Books are born out of ignorance, and if they go on living after they are written, it’s only to the degree that they cannot be understood.” Yet unpredictability does not imply meaninglessness: both Sachs and Aaron learn “that nothing was meaningless, that everything in the world was connected to everything else.”
Freedom and imprisonment are discussed endlessly here. We learn that Maria admires Lillian’s “absolute inner freedom, the way she lived by her own rules and didn’t give a damn what anybody thought.” Fanny tells Aaron that “[i]f I didn’t give Ben his freedom I’d never be able to hold on to him.” Sachs says: “Every man is a prisoner of his pecker.” Once imprisoned for draft dodging, he noted that in prison “[y]ou don’t have to worry about anything. . . . You’re given three meals a day, you don’t have to do your laundry, your whole life is mapped out for you in advance. You’d be surprised how much freedom that gives you.” Lady Liberty is a recurring image. Sachs recalls a childhood visit to the statue for which, to his mortification, his mother insisted that he dress up: “There we were, about to pay homage to the concept of freedom, and I myself was in chains.” When they climbed to the torch and his mother was seized by a fear of falling to her death, “I learned that freedom can be dangerous. If you don’t watch out, it can kill you.”
But though Auster continues to be thought-provoking on the subject of freedom and imprisonment, he doesn’t appear to be all that interested in the connection between these themes and the political ideas that obsess Sachs. Nor are freedom and imprisonment made as palpable here as in his best books. In comparison to Moon Palace and The Music of Chance—a reader of which shares, first, the protagonists’ exhilarating sense of emancipation and possibility, and then their growing astonishment and anxiety at the gradually uncovered patterns of connection in their lives and their increasing sense of confinement—Leviathan is an unengaging experience. It lacks those novels’ sense of inevitability, their steadily rising tension, their exquisite dramatic trajectory; its second half is characterized by a discernible slackening, a feeling of uncertain direction, that is nowhere in evidence in its two immediate predecessors. Part of the problem, undoubtedly, is that instead of hearing about Sachs’s life from Sachs himself or from a third-person narrator who is privy to Sachs’s thoughts and actions, we hear about it from Aaron, who has in turn heard about it mostly from others. Nothing much happens to him: though he’s supposedly absorbed in his memories of and concern for Sachs, his own conflicts or torments, whatever they may be, are hardly present in this book. His enthrallment with Sachs’s story comes across clearly; his putative affection for Sachs does not.
As in Auster’s other novels, there are passages in which every sentence is a cliché.
Leviathan has other failings. As in Auster’s other novels, there are passages in which every sentence is a cliché. Sometimes this strikes one as inadvertent; at other times it seems intentional, a way of stressing the familiarity of some elements and of underscoring by contrast the exoticism of other elements. (One might say of this book what Aaron says of The New Colossus: that “[e]verything is made to seem plausible, matter-of-fact, even banal in the accuracy of its depiction.”) There are, moreover, some logical lapses. Early on, Aaron says he’s been visited by two FBI agents who wore sunglasses and had blue eyes. If they wore sunglasses, how could he tell? One of these agents, Harris, also figures in the book’s concluding (and probably deliberate) paradox. We learn that Harris, having finally identified Sachs as the Phantom of Liberty and as Dimaggio’s killer, has revisited Aaron. “I led Harris across the yard in the hot afternoon sun,” Aaron says. “We walked up the stairs together, and once we were inside, I handed him the pages of this book.” How could he have done so, since he is just now writing its last sentences? This is a neat little riddle, pointing to the book’s status as an invention, a work of artifice, and it forms an interesting pendant to the dedication. For, connoisseur of coincidence though Auster may be, it is no accident that this fictive memoir of a radical novelist by a politically uninvolved fellow writer has been dedicated by its author to a more politically engagé colleague. Nor, alas, is it any accident that Auster, by largely aping DeLillo, has fallen off from his customary high level of literary accomplishment.
Like Paul Auster, the Englishman Julian Barnes is an innovative novelist preoccupied with the difficulty of knowledge and the interconnectedness of life in a world of apparent chaos. “History isn’t what happens,” he tells us in his quirky 1989 novel, A History of the World in 10 Chapters. “History is just what historians tell us.” In the world according to Barnes, history is cyclical (and the twentieth century as brutal as any), historical truth virtually impossible to ascertain, and historical data monstrously easy to manipulate; human beings, moreover, are imperfect and imperfectible beasts, each of whom has his own biases, blemishes, and blindnesses, and all of whom, in order to keep on keeping on, need to feel that they are striving toward some specific ideal—whether an eternal life in heaven, or the attainment of pure Communism, or whatever. (Barnes writes in History that “you can’t get by without the dream.”) As a rule, the most winning parts of his clever—if sometimes tediously farcical—fictions are expository or argumentative; their chief failing is the absence of credible stories and characters.
In this regard, Barnes’s seventh novel, The Porcupine, represents an impressive departure.2 Set in 1991 in an unnamed Eastern European country that has recently traded in Communism for capitalism (a transition known locally as “the Changes”), this low-key, novella-length book concerns Criminal Law Case Number One, in which the nation’s elderly ex-leader, Stoyo Petkanov, is being prosecuted by a youngish law professor named Peter Solinsky. If the two men’s initials are the same, only reversed, it is doubtless because Barnes means to suggest that they are mirror images of each other, and that the contrast between their strongly held political views—Solinsky hates Communism and considers Petkanov a heartless murderer; Petkanov believes in his heart that he has served his people well, that they loved him for it, and that Communism will ultimately triumph—is mainly a matter of generational differences. Barnes breathes life into both characters, and he does so not through the expected courtroom clashes (there is a bare minimum of that sort of thing here) but by reading their minds and recording their private conversations outside the court. To be sure, one keeps wondering: do Communist dictators really think as Petkanov does? Do they really believe in Communist ideals? Do they really feel that all their wicked acts are morally justified because they’re means to a virtuous end? One tends to doubt it; all the more impressive, then, that Petkanov nonetheless feels real.
Indeed, much of this book strikes one as wonderfully right: the gray atmosphere, the flat narrative voice, the irony-heavy dialogue, the matter-of-fact recognition of what it can be like to live through history. (One character complains that Petkanov’s trial is “BORING.” Replies a friend: “History often is when it happens. Then it becomes interesting later.”) There is a rightness, too, about Barnes’s view of life’s moral ambiguities: the court’s jurisdiction is dubious at best; the evidence against Petkanov is faked; Solinsky’s wife, whose father is a leading Party member, gripes that the whole thing is a “modern version” of “a show trial.” The inclusion in Petkanov’s testimony of a list of his medals and of lengthy quotations from the vapid tributes paid him by foreign leaders (among them President Carter and Queen Elizabeth) serves to suggest that every head of state who has ever dealt with such despots as Petkanov is an accomplice in their evil. The lesson of it all: there’s no perfect justice, no commander in chief with clean hands.
Where Barnes goes overboard here, I think, is in giving at least as much weight to the drawbacks as to the merits of Communism’s fall. Near the novel’s end, a group of friends sit in “a smoky cafe which had been a bookshop before the Changes.” Barnes suggests that, thanks to those Changes, a once-serious culture is in danger of turning superficial: one of the friends asks if he isn’t free now “to be frivolous for the rest of my life if I want to be?” Then there’s “Aloysha,” a huge bronze statue of a soldier that was erected after World War II in tribute to the Russian “liberators.” Once a symbol of tyranny, Aloysha is now, in Barnes’s rendering, a forlorn relic; when the statue is finally pulled down, Barnes makes the loss seem poignant. This is, let it be said, one of those moments when one realizes that, good as The Porcupine is, one could never mistake it for the work of someone who has actually lived under Communism.
Barnes consistently draws parallels between Communism and religion.
Barnes consistently draws parallels between Communism and religion. A crone’s portrait of Lenin is referred to as “her icon.” Petkanov calls himself “a true believer.” Solinsky, quoting his dying father, asks Petkanov: “Which is worse, the true believer who continues to believe despite all the evidence of observable reality, or the person who admits such reality yet continues to claim to be a true believer?” Petkanov replies: “Every man has doubts. It is normal. Perhaps there were times when even I did not believe. But I allowed others to. Can you do as much?” Solinsky counters by describing Petkanov sardonically as a “flawed priest who leads the ignorant to heaven.” At times, one feels that Barnes’s aim in drawing such analogies isn’t to defend Communism but to explain, so that Westerners can understand it, the seemingly perverse tenacity with which certain Communists cling to their ideology. This he accomplishes marvelously. Yet at times he does seem to admire the stubbornness of Petkanov’s belief (indeed, he depicts him virtually as a religious martyr) and to see Solinsky, for all his dedication to democratic ideas, as something of an opportunist and self-seeker. At the end of the novel, moreover, we’re plainly meant to see that Petkanov’s former subjects have begun flooding into the churches not because they now feel free to do so, but because, robbed of Communism, they’re hungry for something to believe in.
Granted, one of Barnes’s major goals here is to subvert simplistic, sentimental views of Communism’s fall by reminding us that human nature doesn’t change: where there are human beings, there will be corruption, no matter what system they live under. Yet he himself makes use of sentimentalism—notably in the portrait of Petkanov, in the passages about Aloysha, and in the concluding vignette of an old lady standing silently in the rain clutching a framed picture of Lenin. Barnes is sentimental, in short, about Communists and their affection for Communist icons. A reader of this novel might easily forget that there are few genuine Marxists in former Soviet-bloc countries; to them, the system of Lenin and Stalin was not a great truth but a fraud, a foundation for tyranny, a cause of fear. What is missing in this book is sufficient recognition of Eastern Europe as a place where, until very recently, an American traveler could see terror in the eyes of fellow railroad passengers when a man in uniform came around to check tickets, and where crossing from West to East Berlin meant leaving a place whose inhabitants appeared happy and robust for a place where people looked gray, enervated, hopeless. These were not folks who believed in the system under which they lived. One of this novel’s implicit questions—which is better, life with purpose and persecution or life without either?—is based on false premises: for Communism, in its latter days, was not a faith; it is democracy that has given Eastern Europe something to believe in. This reviewer happened to read The Porcupine on the day of the Presidential election, and it is hard to imagine Communism offering anything to compare to the thrill of taking one’s place, in the rain, at the end of a line of voters stretching halfway down a long block from a synagogue door. The Porcupine is highly effective, then, but it is also something of a lie.
A less striking but somewhat more honest view of the collapse of tyranny is provided by the Irishman Hugo Hamilton’s The Last Shot.3 This spare, vigorous second novel offers two related stories that are set forty-four years apart. One story is that of Bertha Sommer, a naïve young German who, in the last days of World War 11, holds down a civilian job at a Nazi garrison in Laun, Czechoslovakia. With the Red Army at the gates, she and Franz Kern, a friendly Wehrmacht soldier, hightail it toward Allied- occupied Germany. En route, she makes love to him (though he’s married), resolves to emigrate with him to America, and is abducted and molested by two Poles. Interspersed with the chapters that relate this story are chapters set in 1980, during the fall of Communism in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. The narrator here is a youngish Vermonter who lives in West Germany and who—for reasons that remain unclear till the novel’s end—wants to track down the aged Franz Kern. His account, in which the usage (e.g., “different to,” “in hospital,” and “queue”) is often curiously non-Yank, focuses largely on his relationship with his longtime best friend, Jürgen, and with his ex-girlfriend, now Jürgen’s wife, whose distress over her Down’s syndrome toddler drives her to escape occasionally into the narrator’s bed.
If Hamilton gives us two adulterous couples living half a century apart, it’s to remind us, as Barnes does in his own way, that the more things change, the more they stay the same: corrupt regimes topple, beleaguered spouses cheat, innocent children suffer. Some live and some die, with no apparent rhyme or reason. Good may overcome evil on the world stage, but evil endures and must be conquered anew; meanwhile obscure people continue to perform small acts of sacrifice or selfishness that change the lives of other obscure people. The novel’s conceit, reflected in the title, is that when Kern saves Bertha from her Polish abductors, in an incident that will never be known to the writers of history books, he fires the last shot of the war—Hamilton’s point being that wars and social revolutions are events not only in the history of the world but in the history of individuals, whose memories of their own heroism and/or treachery will die with them. Despite an almost inordinate restraint and modesty of scale, this is an admirable story about human attachments and historical exigencies.
Also noteworthy in a modest way is Antiquity Street, an elegant, evocative first novel that was written in English by an Egyptian using the pseudonym Sonia Rami.4 The book offers a Middle Eastern twist on a time-honored plot: upper-class woman romances lower-class man. Rami’s unnamed heroine and narrator is a Harvard student in her twenties, the spoiled daughter of a retired Egyptian diplomat and his deeply traditional wife. This girl has brought her parents terrible shame and embarrassment: she’s been thrown out of several schools, she’s had a series of scandalous affairs, and she’s bailed out of an arranged marriage. Though their wealth, prestige, and monumental forbearance have enabled her to lead this irresponsible life without suffering the usual social consequences, she’s repaid them only with disrespect. Home from college for an extended visit, she wastes no time in disgracing her family yet again—this time by romancing Alex, an ambitious, spirited hustler in his thirties whom her gravely ill father has taken on as a lackey and companion. Though this uptown girl and downtown boy meet at her family’s palatial apartment in Cairo’s Zamalik district—once the exclusive province of the British overlords and local bluebloods, but now polluted by “the new moneyed class”—it is in Alex’s hovel on Antiquity Street that the two lovers conduct their brief, intense affair.
The book’s only surprise, indeed, is that it offers no surprises.
If The Last Shot, then, introduces two couples whose attraction is not purely romantic, and whose clandestine, ill-fated affairs are acts of family disloyalty, Antiquity Street is about one such couple. Both books highlight the social circumstances and political tumults that give these affairs urgency, resonance, and poignancy, and against the background of which (we are reminded) the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans. For Antiquity Street, in Rami’s view, is plainly a paradigm of her country today—filthy, poor, overcrowded. In these parts, being an unhyphenated Egyptian isn’t cool on either end of the economic ladder: Alex despises his dark neighbors and prides himself on his white skin and supposed Greek blood (though he turns out to be at least half Egyptian); the brat’s parents wax nostalgic for pre-Nassar days when Cairo and Alexandria were vibrant, pseudo-European cities full of light-skinned Turko-Egyptian aristocrats like themselves. The brat, for her part, rejects her folks’ snobbery and racism even as she shares their nostalgia. Yet she remains a brat. Indeed, it’s never clear whether the author realizes how much of a brat this girl is. Certainly the brat doesn’t realize it. One keeps wondering: what draws these two lovers together? Is the brat romancing Alex to irk her folks? Is Alex (whose main sexual interest seems to be in men) using her as a steppingstone to wealth and America? In such cases, can one entirely separate out love, lust, and selfish motives (conscious or unconscious)?
Wisely, Rami never resolves this ambiguity. The book’s only surprise, indeed, is that it offers no surprises: the brat doesn’t end up pregnant or in prison or disinherited; she doesn’t catch Alex in bed with her dad or take him back to Cambridge and lose him to a member of the Harvard crew team. No, her story plays itself out in genteel, predictable fashion, a sort of Third World Brief Encounter for the 1990s that retains our interest largely by means of its psychological acuity, its graphic portrait of Cairo life, and its sumptuous prose. Indeed, Rami’s prose is often a bit too rich. Self-consciously ornamental phrases abound: “the ardent smell of roses,” “the magical ease of our nascent friendship.” Rami can’t refer to “tropical vegetation” without calling it “exuberant,” can’t mention the climate without labeling it “inexorable.” Our heroine doesn’t just drink, she sits “slaking my thirst with pomegranate juice.” Yet for all the mannered and precious language, Rami can write with passion and conviction. At its best, her vivid delineation of her homeland’s extremes—its beauty and ugliness, privilege and poverty—recalls such writers as R. K. Narayan, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and Mohammed Mrabet; and if Antiquity Street doesn’t quite approach the level of accomplishment of the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz (several of whose novels are, like Rami’s book, named for thoroughfares in the Egyptian capital), she could most certainly pass as a promising protégée of her native Nobelist, with whom she shares a winning absorption in the lives of Cairo families and the life of Cairo’s streets.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 4, on page 51
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