‘Ice’ by Sonallah Ibrahim (translated by Margaret Litvin) was longlisted for the EBRD Literature Prize, an award for Translated literary fiction written in any language of the “European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’s 38 countries of operations”. Although not making the shortlist it is worth noting that the winning book will take home a prize of €20,000 that is equally divided between the winning author and translator.
Sonallah Ibrahim was born in Cairo in 1937. He studied law at Cairo University and was imprisoned in 1959 for his political activities. While serving his five-year sentence he wrote ‘Notes from Prison’ and composed ‘That Smell’ shortly following his release, both titles released by New Directions publishing in the USA. After several years abroad, including studying at the All-Russian Institute of Cinematography in Moscow from 1971-73, he returned in 1974 to Cairo, where he has lived ever since. In 2004 he was awarded the Egyptian government’s prestigious Novelist of the Year prize. Ibrahim publicly declined the award, saying he could not accept a literary prize from “a government that, in my opinion, lacks the credibility to bestow it.”
Picaresque literature, shining examples in both the Arabic world and in Slavic folktales. Tales “relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a roguish but appealing hero, of low social class, who lives by his wits in a corrupt society” (Oxford dictionary). ‘Ice’ continues that picaresque tradition, however I’m not too sure if our “hero” is that appealing.
Set in 1973 (there is a calendar on our protagonist’s wall) this novel consists of 126 short chapters, chronological in order and covering the observations of an Egyptian student in Moscow. Almost diary like, the prose is factual and devoid of emotion or motivation. A case of tell not show:
I went to Health Clinic #6 downtown, the one we were assigned to. I undressed and described my condition to him, drawling a penis and testicles on a piece of paper, before lying down on the doctor’s examination bench. He told me to hold my penis in my hand. Then he put on a white glove and stuck his finger into my anus, moving it until I felt a burning sensation. He said I had an inflamed prostate because of the cold. He prescribed some ointment, enemas and a massage of the gland he said he would do himself. I walked to the Arbatskaya Station, then switched trains at Kievskaya.
Our protagonist here lacks any moral compass, lurching from one experience to the next, his days are made up of drinking vodka or cheap champagne, procuring supplies (tomatoes are hard to come by), and observing women for their physical attributes, or marital status. There are innumerable instances of our narrator rubbing himself up against women on trains, in crowded venues, him obsessed by a pair of long bare legs or attempting to bed fellow students. All characters, male or female, have no background, other than ethnicity or marital status, they simply move into our narrator’s sphere and then simply leave.
Whilst our nameless narrator (note the ‘Translator’s Afterword’ names him as Shukri and it was only then, on the second last page, I knew his name) is attracted to numerous women, his success is limited, unlike Hans “the handsome German. About thirty, taller than me, with his soft blonde hair falling over his forehead and parted in the middle, and his fleshy lips. He would come from East Germany a few times a year to meet with his thesis supervisor.” Hans has all the women (and men) chasing him, our narrator finding when alone with a woman that they are more interested in talking about their relationship with Hans than with him.
At a literal level this is simply a story of an abhorrent foreign student navigating his way through 1970’s Russia:
Choosing what to buy was no challenge; the selection was limited. I stood in the queue at the counter looking at the picture of Brezhnev on the wall. One of the white-coated saleswomen disappeared. Two others were absorbed in a long conversation. I was given a receipt for what I wanted. Then I moved over to another queue to pay. The saleswoman added up my purchases on a wooden abacus: 310 kopeks’ worth of eggs, 30 of kefir, cultured milk, 463 of vodka and 80 of bread. I paid and collected my receipt, then moved to the third queue to receive my purchases.
Yes, he does seem to spend more money on alcohol than food. Anything to get him through the drudgery of daily existence. As a reader you find the dreaded repetition of banal daily interactions mind numbing, you are experiencing the monotony, and impotence, just like our protagonist.
I got on the tram. I stood next to a woman by the farebox. She was in her forties, with a nice face despite its heavy paint. She was holding a small folded umbrella. I thought she must be returning frustrated from a Sunday excursion. We stepped inside. I felt her backside behind me, so I rubbed my backside against it. She pressed back.
Besides drinking, social interactions and general drudgery, our protagonist cuts out interesting articles about the conflicts in the Arab world from old newspapers. This activity links certain conflicts to Russian/American influence, however our narrator does not generally have an opinion, again his views are reported in a clinical manner. He may be present at debates between various students about political situations, but their views are simply presented.
There are a number of references to other literary works, films, music and other artistic pursuits. As a reader you need to decipher the meaning of these interludes, for example our narrator tells us of the narrative plot of a film, and if you are well versed in that example you can understand a deeper philosophical reference:
The film began, at the screening room on the third floor of the Institute. The stupid school, the degenerate, cruel teacher and the child groping for a path through all this, and forced to lie. At home his mother has no time for him. She gets home late, exhausted, after he has already set the table. The father comes home, a failure, and at night the child can hear them arguing. He has seen her kiss a man in the street. He runs away from home. She brings him back and decides to be nice to him, gives him a bath, and when he wants to go to sleep in his bed in the living room by the door she says, ‘No, in our bed.’ He goes to her bed and undresses and slips in naked.
This literal reading of the book presents a dry and clinical novel, however there is an underlying metaphorical level. The Egyptians are tolerated, the East German is fettered, the Syrians or Iranians are on the periphery. It is the East German who has more success in Russia, however his fate isn’t a bed of roses either.
The title ‘Ice’ showing this literary approach is but a slippery surface, underneath there are torrents of movement, barely discernable. The “Translator’s Afterword” explaining further:
The narration presents a numbly factual sequence of events without logical subordination, analysis or even a personal response. The narrator is reduced to a pair of eyes or, more precisely, to a camera, recording impressions to be developed later. While rejecting any claim to understand the people or events described, the narrative foregrounds of Shukri’s sense of estrangement, pointless and anticlimax. The reader, too, gropes for orientation. Friendships and love relationships are tenuous. Situations are ambiguous. All the drama is between the lines.
An intriguing read from a revered Egyptian writer, the repetitive mundane existence coming though as you turn every page, but it is almost as though you’re reading a KGB observation file, however there is an underlying political dissent and the relationship between Arab States and Russia, the power plays and the sheer dominance of the Russian political system somewhere underneath your feet, as you slip on the icy surface.
As always, a beautifully presented book from Seagull Books and another worthy addition to my collection.