Author, Book review, Books in translation, Egypt, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Maclehose Press, Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing, Picador, Publisher, Roland Schimmelpfennig, Saqi Books, Setting, UK, USA

3 novellas by Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing and Roland Schimmelpfennig

I do love a good novella.

Wikipedia defines these books as “somewhere between 17,500 and 40,000 words”, but I generally think anything under 150 pages qualifies. Alternatively, anything I can read in around two hours is a novella to me.

Here are three excellent novellas I’ve read recently, all of which I highly recommend.

‘Memoirs of a Woman Doctor’ by Nawal El Saadawi

Fiction – paperback; Saqi Books; 128 pages; 2019. Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

First published in Nawal El Saadawi’s native Egypt in 1960, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor is a fictionalised account of growing up female in a restrictive culture where women are second-class citizens and often denied a chance of an education.

In this first-person story, our narrator defies tradition — and her family’s claustrophobic expectations that she’ll marry and produce children — to go to medical school. Here, in the autopsy room, she dissects a male body — her first encounter with a naked man — and “in the course of it men lost their dread power and illusory greatness in my eyes”.

Later, she forgoes her independence to marry a man, but that turns sour when he tries to control her at home. She wastes no time in divorcing him — a huge no-no in Egyptian society — wondering if she will ever find a partner who respects her as a person and not as a “chattel” to own and objectify. The ending, I’m happy to say, is a satisfying one.

This fast-paced novella, which spans decades in less than 120 pages, reveals the sexism at the heart of Egyptian culture and the courage required for a woman to be accepted in a profession long dominated by men. It has proved an excellent introduction to this author’s work, which has just been reissued by Saqi Books as part of a new series of classic work by writers from the Middle East and North Africa.

‘Crudo’ by Olivia Laing

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 176 pages; 2018.

I ate up Olivia Laing’s Crudo in an afternoon. It is an amazing little book about the power of now — or, more specifically, the summer of 2017 — when the main character, Kathy, turns 40 and falls in love but is scared of committing herself to the one man. She goes ahead with the wedding regardless.

It is all stream-of-consciousness, written in a fast-paced, fragmentary style, but riveting and so akin to my own line of thinking about the modern world — Brexit, Trump’s America, politics, social justice and climate change et al —  that it almost feels as if it fell out of my own head.

Supposedly based on the work of Kathy Acker, whom I had to look up on Wikipedia (her entry is a fascinating read in its own right), it took me on a short but jam-packed journey about art and love and life and everything in between. A wow of a book that I hope to read again sometime soon.

‘One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century’ by Roland Schimmelpfennig

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 240 pages; 2018. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

This German novella has been reviewed favourably by Annabel at Annabookbel and Susan at A Life in Books, but I think I probably saw it first at Winstonsdad’s Blog.

It’s a highly original story that follows a diverse group of disparate characters living in Poland and Germany who are all united by one thing: they have spied the same rare wild wolf in the snow en-route to Berlin.

Written by a German playwright, the book is intensely cinematic and told in a fragmentary style using sparse prose and small vignettes which provide glimpses into the lives of those who people it, including two young people on the run, a Polish construction worker and his pregnant girlfriend, a small business owner who runs a kiosk with his wife, and a woman intent on burning her mother’s diaries.

It’s an absorbing, if somewhat elusive, read, one that requires a bit of focus to keep track of who’s who as the narrative twists and loops around itself, a bit like the wandering wolf at the heart of the tale. But on the whole, this is a fascinating portrait of modern Berlin and its diverse population after unification.

Have you read any of these books? Do you like novellas? Do you have any favourites you can recommend?

Alaa As Aswany, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Egypt, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Yacoubian Building’ by Alaa As Aswany


Fiction – hardcover; Fourth Estate; 272 pages; 2007. Translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies.

The Yacoubian Building
has been a best seller in its native Egypt and throughout the Arabic world since publication in 2002. It was translated into English in 2004 but has come to more prominent attention because it was made into a film of the same name last year. This hardcover edition was published in 2007.

Set in downtown Cairo at the time of the 1990 Gulf War, this intriguing novel shows modern Egyptian life through the eyes of a diverse range of characters, all of whom live in an apartment block called the Yacoubian Building.

Similar in style to Nicholas Rinaldi’s Between Two Rivers, which is set in a Manhattan residential building, it charts the struggles of a wide cross-section of society, from the underclass that live in cramped conditions in converted storage rooms on the roof of the building, to the wealthy residents who inhabit the building’s individual apartments.

There are so many characters in the book that a list is printed at the front for reference. The main ones include: a wealthy and elderly playboy (Zaki Bey el Dessouki); a bright and ambitious young man who wants to enter the Police Acadamy but joins a militant Islamist organisation instead (Taha el Shazli); a beautiful girl who supports her family by taking a poorly paid job in a clothing shop which is run by a man who expects sexual favours (Busayna); a shirtmaker and petty schemer (Malak); the gay editor-in-chief of a French language newspaper (Hatim Rasheed); and a self-made millionaire who has a secret second marriage to satisfy his ever-present libido (Hagg Muhammad Azzam).

Each of these characters are incredibly interesting in their own right — with secrets to keep and struggles to overcome — but Aswany makes things more intriguing by having some of them bump into each other in often surprising and unpredictable ways. While this helps drive the narrative forward, it also allows the reader to appreciate the apparent contradictions in Egyptian society where people with different religious, political and moral viewpoints live side by side, not always in harmony.

In fact, Aswany’s book is a highly political one, showing as it does a society rife with bribery and corruption and riddled with poverty and violence, the result of a political system dominated by a single party. Here, the disenchanted populace dream of escape to foreign lands to live better lives. Some also see Islamic extremism as a viable method of creating a better society.

Western readers may also be shocked at the role that women are forced to play in this culture. They are not only objectified but they are conditioned to believe that it is up to them to modify their behaviour in order to meet the sexual demands of the male population. If that means you need to put up with your boss’s advances at work, then so be it, there’s no such thing as sexual harrassment here.

There’s no doubt that The Yacoubian Building is a powerful, thought-provoking and controversial read, but it’s also an entertaining and enlightening one, and I was sad when it came to an end. I very much recommend it, particularly if you want to experience an eye-opening glimpse of a culture not widely written about in western literature.