x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Some day, Dubai will have its Dickens

A great many words have been written about Dubai, but no great literature. The city has all the ingredients, so surely it is just a matter of time.

Dubai is a city that deserves more than the mish-mash of potboilers and travelogues so far written about it.
Dubai is a city that deserves more than the mish-mash of potboilers and travelogues so far written about it.

One of the mysteries of Dubai is that it hasn't yet produced a truly great novel. We've seen a few so-so stabs at local literary fiction: Ayadh Farooq's The Rainbow that Never Was, for instance, or Maha Gargash's Sand Fish. The English author Stephen Wilkins has produced a couple of middling efforts: Dubai Creek and Camels Love Dubai. Other than these, the city's literary output has pretty much been confined to travelogues, business books and limp thrillers. The grandaddy of the latter genre is Robin Moore's 1976 potboiler Dubai ("where adventurers play the world's most dangerous games"). The Duke of Dubai, published in 2008 by Luigi Falconi, actually managed to take the tone down a notch or two ("Intoxicated by the inexhaustible riches of the oil-rich Shaikhdom...").

This month saw a new addition to the Dubai-intrigue category, with the publication of Dan Fesperman's Layover in Dubai, whose byzantine plot-line involves organised crime, corrupt cops, sleaze, wealth and - of course - murder. A blurb on the author's website gives us a sense of how deeply he delves into the actual city: "Resort islands materialise from open ocean, fortunes are made and lost overnight, and skiers crisscross the snowy slopes of a shopping mall."

Skiers crisscross the snowy slopes of a shopping mall? Surely Dubai deserves better than this. Every now and then, a book will emerge that succeeds in capturing the spirit of a city along with its substance. So it is we have Victor Hugo's Paris, Jay McInerney's New York, James Joyce's Dublin, Martin Amis's London. For these authors, the city wasn't a mere backdrop - it was something much larger, a kind of life force, driving the story and the characters in it. To date, nobody has managed to perform a similar feat with Dubai.

The city, certainly, has all the big-picture elements in place: transience, tradition, materialism, religion, ambition, manic ebullience and collective regret - an all-you-can-write buffet of modern preoccupations. Then there's Dubai itself, this magnificent, infuriating superstructure, clanging with life and blindingly bright, smack-bang in the middle of the desert, smack-bang in the middle of the Middle East. What more could you want?

But perhaps the question should be: How much more can we take? Over the past few years, Dubai has had more words spilled in its name than any other city on earth. There are remote Amazonian tribes who are sick to the back teeth of hearing about the indoor ski slopes and man-made islands. You could build a full-scale Burj Khalifa out of books with titles like Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success. Then you have the likes of Fesperman, trotting out such passages as: "Dubai's new elite favoured art auctions, horse breeding, and an eclectic cuisine of, say, creamed leeks with shaved truffles." Which, in turn, leads reviewers to make comments like: "By setting his story in the mind-numbingly hot and soul-crushingly glitzy city of Dubai?" Which contributes to the cacophony of opinion that drowns out the true voice of Dubai. It's a vicious and slightly tedious circle.

For those of us who care about the place, the lack of quality literature about Dubai can be frustrating. It makes the city feel incomplete, immature. But this may be partly the point. William Wordsworth described poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility", and maybe it's the same with fiction. This, at least, would help explain why the Great Dubai Novel has yet to be written. The city doesn't do tranquility very well.

For anyone writing about Dubai, meanwhile, it can be easy to succumb to excesses of language and gee-whiz appreciation. Joyce knew that the love of place comes in many forms. In one of his more memorable passages, he described Dublin's Kingstown Pier as being "a disappointed bridge". This wonderfully cranky remark suggests intimacy, the ache of familial affection, in a way that a million superlatives never could. Maybe one day someone will conjure up something equally affecting to describe the Maktoum Bridge.