The case against the global novel

0767e41c-b669-4bf7-bd9b-269e3d07f4abPankaj Mishra in the Financial Times:

Between 1952 and 1957, Naguib Mahfouz did not write any novels or stories. This was not a case of writer’s block. Mahfouz, who had completed his masterwork, The Cairo Trilogy, in the early 1950s, later explained that he had hoped Egypt’s revolutionary regime would fulfil the aims of his realist novels, and focus public attention on social, economic and political ills. Disenchantment would drive him back to fiction, of a more symbolic and allegorical kind. In 1967, Israel’s crushing defeat of Egypt would force Mahfouz to stop again, and then resume with some explicitly political work.

In recent months, Ahdaf Soueif and Alaa al-Aswany, among other Egyptian authors, have been found on the barricades of Cairo. Such a close and perilous involvement of writers in national upheavals may surprise many contemporary readers in the west, who are accustomed to think of novelists as diffident explorers of the inner life – people very rarely persuaded to engage with public events. Literature today seems to emerge from an apolitical and borderless cosmopolis. Even the mildly adversarial idea of the “postcolonial” that emerged in the 1980s, when authors from Britain’s former colonial possessions appeared to be “writing back” to the imperial centre, has been blunted. The announcement this month that the Man Booker, a literary prize made distinctive by its Indian, South African, Irish, Scottish and Australian winners, will henceforth be open to American novels is one more sign of the steady erasure of national and historical specificity.

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