Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 4 Issue 47 | May 20, 2005 |

   Cover Story
   News Notes
   Time Out
   Human Rights
   Food For Thought
   In Retrospect
   Dhaka Diary
   Book Review
   New Flicks

   SWM Home


Book Review

Out of the Trunk


By Ahdaf Soueif.

AHDAF SOUEIF'S latest novel, which was a finalist for last year's Booker Prize, is a wonderfully accomplished and mature work of fiction telling the intersecting stories of three women -- Egyptian, American, English -- one of whom lives a century earlier than the other two. Although a key part of the novel's maturity is its ability to face up squarely to both politics and love, the narrative unfolds obliquely -- so obliquely that it even starts in midsentence.

In ''The Map of Love,'' stories -- and histories and mysteries -- are encountered piecemeal by the reader, just as they are by the characters themselves. In a way, these discoveries are like the objects that are gradually unpacked from the old trunk that is at the heart of the book. We fit together the intersecting stories at the same pace as the characters, except that we can get a head start by consulting the family tree that precedes the text. With this, Soueif alerts us to the fact that her novel requires -- and deserves -- an active, attentive audience.

The trunk has been found in 1997 by Isabel Parkman, a young journalist in New York, among the belongings of her mother, Jasmine, who is in the terminal stages of Alzheimer's disease. At a dinner party, Isabel meets and falls in love with an older man, Omar al-Ghamrawi, a charismatic Egyptian conductor famous internationally not only for his musicianship but for his articulate espousal of the Arab cause. Isabel has been starting to look through the contents of the trunk, which belonged to her English great-grandmother, Anna Winterbourne. What Isabel hadn't realised -- because the intervening generations hid their Middle Eastern ancestry -- is that Anna had married an Egyptian, Sharif el-Baroudi, in 1901. Isabel tells Omar about the trunk in an effort to get closer to him, and he suggests that she take it to Cairo to show his sister, Amal, who might be willing to translate the Arabic journals and papers. Isabel decides to combine this visit with a journalistic assignment; she also toys with the notion of making a film from her grandmother's story. Yet once Isabel arrives in Cairo, both projects are shelved as the trunk turns into her own and Amal's version of Pandora's box.

It is Amal who pieces Anna's story together, although the author's inventive use of letters, diaries, dialogue and reconstructed narrative keeps the other characters' voices vividly alive. Having escaped a broken marriage in England and returned to her homeland, Amal loses herself cathartically in the remnants of Anna's life: ''That is the beauty of the past; there it lies on the table: journals, pictures, a candle-glass, a few books of history. . . . You can leaf forward and know the end. And you tell the story that they, the people who lived it, could only tell in part.'' More than that: ''I got to know Anna as though she were my best friend.'' Indeed, the love affair at the centre of the novel, between Anna and the Egyptian nationalist leader who becomes her husband, affects the empty-hearted Amal so much that she is ''half in love with him, I believe.''

The story Amal uncovers is set in motion by the widowed Anna Winterbourne's journey to Egypt in 1900, undertaken to try to restore her equilibrium after her husband's morose decline following his return from service with Kitchener's forces in the Sudan. The Egypt Anna experiences is not at all the one that imperial Britain has led her to expect, with ''ordinary Arabs''. Disguised as a man in order to see the beauties of the Sinai Desert, she is captured by young nationalists, who are appalled to discover her true identity. This leads to a meeting with her future husband, Sharif, and to her increasing doubts about the rationale for the British occupation of Egypt.

Gradually, Anna begins see her country's presence in the region as deeply divisive, preventing the Egyptians from moving toward independence just as they are emerging from the influence of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Even the United States -- turned to as a champion of liberty -- colludes with this infantilising of a whole nation, as a visiting Theodore Roosevelt tells the Egyptian elite ''it would take 'generations' before they learned to govern themselves.'' An Egyptian notable, Anna records, ''took occasion to remind Mr. Roosevelt that Egypt had attained her maturity a few thousand years before America came into being!''

As Anna begins to trust her own impressions of Middle Eastern life, she realises that her first husband was probably unhinged by his part in what were in reality massacres in the Sudan, cloaked by the spurious moral purposes of the empire. The legacies of the British occupation percolate even to Amal's generation. So too does the Zionist movement. Yet the novel's use of these historical strands is never tendentious, and its title suggests a more subtle purpose: to show how love can grow in the interstices between different countries, even between different times.

If love works to bind people and places together politics all too often destroys them. Soueif gives an intensely engaging panorama of a century of Middle Eastern politics (mildly, if understandably, biased toward Egypt). There is no resolution here, just as Amal's and Isabel's modern-day stories are left unresolved. Yet we sense that the baton of understanding will continue to be handed on, if in unpredictable ways -- just as the trunk, unopened for so long, has yielded its transforming secrets to progeny its owner could never have imagined.

Source: The Guardian


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2005