of the Trunk
MAP OF LOVE
By Ahdaf Soueif.
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.
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.
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.
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.''
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.
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!''
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.
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.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005