Two recent collections of local fiction send Peter C Baker on the trail of the Great Emirati Novel.
Searching for Sheikhspeare
Fiction is, at its best, a clarifier. It transcends simple signifiers like "sad" and "happy" to articulate complex emotions. In doing so, it enables us to properly have these emotions, instead of having them simply thrust upon us. Our emotional lives become richer and less of an inchoate burden. Often, these emotional rewards are essentially untethered from any specific time, place or circumstance. Today, a Frenchman can be engaged by an ancient Greek tragedy. A Lebanese teenager can be transfixed and moved by Proust's evocation of early 20th-century Paris. Most of the world loves Shakespeare.
But many of our emotions are psychogeographically specific: intimately tied to particularities of where and when we live. Hence the well-recognised special value of local narratives (fictional or otherwise) and their power to enrich and amplify our sense of how we experience our homes. It's good fun (there is no better word) to recognise the place where you live on the printed page. When, in the middle of Hari Kunzru's Transmission, the would-be global marketing guru Guy Swift rides through the streets of Dubai for the first time and observes a building that "appeared to be topped with a gargantuan dimpled golf ball", it is oddly pleasant to be able to say (if only to yourself): "Hey! I actually know what that is! An Etisalat building!"
Kunzru, however, does not give us a truly local Dubai narrative, or give voice to particularly UAE-tethered emotions. The UAE of Transmission is more of a plot device - a usefully strange hypermodern desert elsewhere - than an actual place. This makes sense: Transmission is not a novel about the UAE, it's a novel by a British author in which a Briton visits Dubai for 24 hours on business and sticks to the hotels and golf courses. While Kunzru doesn't say anything false about the UAE, he also doesn't say much of interest to anyone who has lived here for more than a month and knows that there are lots of shiny hotels here, that foreign workers staff those hotels and that prostitutes work in some of them.
This prompts the question of what a genuinely local UAE narrative might hope to look like or accomplish. At first glance, the enterprise seems impossibly daunting. The Great UAE Novel would draw on intimate knowledge of each of the cultures housed here and the ways in which they interact. The author would probably speak English, a few Arabic dialects, Gulf Pidgin, Urdu and Hindi - for a start. He or she would have spent time in Emirati households, expatriate gatherings, business conventions, international hotel parties and labour camps, would know something special about each locale and would reveal something significant about the relationships between them.
This book is not available. And that's fine, because this popular notion of the great national novel is a chimera. Consider America, a nation infatuated with the idea of big novels as great encapsulators of national hopes, tensions and character. There are many good novels about various segments of the American multitude. And there are many compelling novels about the project of living together - in marriage, in civil society, sometimes in violent conflict - that these segments share. Yet there is no singularly Great American Novel that does it all (whatever that might mean). Not Huck Finn, not Augie March, not Rabbit Angstrom.
In March, Motivate Publishing released Dubai Tales, a collection of short stories by the Dubai author Mohammad Al Murr translated from Arabic into English that had been released elsewhere in the early 1990s (and is commonly recommended by visitors' guides as a source of "local colour"). Other than The Wink of the Mona Lisa, another translated Murr collection, this is the only work of local fiction that I have seen in a bookstore in the UAE. When I spotted the two books together in Magrudy's, I became excited, too excited, excited enough to temporarily forget my scorn for great national so-and-sos. I was, after all, about to buy and read the Great Emirati Collection of Short Stories - to receive a bunch of important insights about the UAE and my life in it.
Of course, no such thing happened. What I actually read were two decent collections of short stories. As with all short stories, those that fail do so primarily because their characters lack interior life. Their lives simply happen to them and it is never clear how they feel about it. In the three-page long One Day A Week, Ali only sees Aisha, his wife from Thursday evening through Friday afternoon (their house is in Dubai, and he works at a federal ministry in Abu Dhabi). They do not talk or do much of anything together, other than the occasional night-time drive to the airport. Nonetheless, she falls deeply in love with him. Murr never describes how any of this happens, or what it is like for Aisha, or what Ali gets up to in evenings when he is in Abu Dhabi - let alone what he thinks of Aisha. Even when he divorces her, we learn next to nothing about either of them. This is much more frustrating than intriguing.
But there are several successful stories in the collection. In my favourite, Dinner by Candlelight, a husband surprises himself by having a wonderful time on an dreaded obligatory night out with his wife. In its complement, A Late Dinner, a wife finds herself unable to stay annoyed with her drunk but sweet husband who stumbles home late craving macaroni. These quietly moving stories slow down enough to let their characters think and feel for a minute. They end not with plot twists or morals, but with sweet moments of emotional crystallisation that give the everyday a bit of its due. Of course, the everyday under examination is filled with local details (oil wealth, sand, camels, foreign cars, fancy hotels, rapid change), but local details do not lead straight to local insight, and my expectation otherwise left me disappointed.
Why had I expected so impossibly much in the first place? Probably because Murr's work is the only widely available local fiction we have, and we could do with more: a cacophony of local colours. Each great American (or great Chinese, or great French, or whatever) novel is great because it is one of many, and claims a place of standing among its geographic and temporal peers. Right now, Murr stands alone, which is no way for local literature to stand. Accounts of life work best when they butt up against, compete with and complement each other. And so I will not wait for the Great UAE Novel, but I will keep looking for fiction that shows us where we live.