Pessoptimism of the Will: On the Absurd Fictions of Emile Habiby

Anjuli Raza Kolb in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_2595 Feb. 15 17.48There is a word that has been hovering around me like a familiar since the morning after the U.S. presidential election. It comes from the title of the Palestinian novelist and politician Emile Habiby’s bizarre and wonderful 1974 book, The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (al-mutasha’il, a mashup of mutafa’il [optimism] and mutasha’im [pessimism]). Through the oxymoronic condition of pessoptimism, the novel—which Edward Said styled the national epic of Palestine—describes life for a fairly ordinary Arab on and across the borders of Israel, roughly from the Nakba in 1948 through the June War of 1967. The facts of this ordinary life for Saeed, whose first name means “happy,” include separation from his family, a politically expedient marriage arranged by a party boss, a stint in jail for overzealous loyalty to the Israeli state, the loss of his child and wife, multiple relocations, forced anti-communist spying, the constant threat of expulsion, the stripping of rights, and, most importantly, a radical, deranging solitude.

In one of the letters to an anonymous correspondent in which he chronicles his adventures, Saeed the Pessoptimist explains how he inhabits his name under such conditions: “I don’t differentiate between optimism and pessimism and am quite at a loss as to which of the two characterizes me. When I awake each morning I thank the Lord he did not take my soul during the night. If harm befalls me during the day, I thank Him that it was no worse.” A self-consciously quixotic type, Saeed compares his adventures to those of Cervantes’s antihero, as well as to Candide’s. Fellow Palestinian writer Salma Jayyusi situates the Pessoptimist in a genealogy of three archetypes of Arabic literature going back to the eighth century: the picaresque hero, the fool, and the traitor/informer.

More here.