Crossing the River

The issue of re-reading is one that crops up on blogs and in literary articles time and again.  Some people are inveterate re-readers, some are horrified by the mere thought and yet others terrified that revisiting a book will destroy the very relationship that made them think it was worth reading a second time in the first place.

While not averse to re-reading, these days I am most likely to pick up a book a second time if it turns up on the list for one or other of my reading groups, which is the position in which I find myself at present.  I first read Adhaf Soueif”s novel The Map of Love when it was short-listed for the Booker in 1999 and have regretted ever since that she has been too involved in the political situation within her country to write any more fiction.  So, when it was selected for the October meeting of our Monday Group I was only too pleased to dig out my old copy and settle down with it again.  However, what this ‘re-reading’ has decisively proved to me is that just as it is never possible to cross the same river twice it is never truly possible to read the same book twice.

The argument that is usually put forward to support this notion is that the reader will inevitably have changed between the two readings and will, therefore, bring a different sensibility and experiential set to play in respect of how they understand the text. And, I’m sure this is true in relation to my response to Soueif’s novel.  However, if that is the case then there are two small sub-set of experiences that are taking on by far the greater importance in the change in my interaction with the book.

The first is 9/11.  It is impossible to read about the antagonism towards the British on the early twentieth century and the Americans at the end without reflecting on the action such antagonism provoked amongst certain people.

Far more thought provoking, however, is the more recent popular uprising amongst the people of Egypt themselves, an uprising in which Soueif and her family were intimately involved.  This afternoon I hit the passage about a third of the way through where the two central modern day female characters are involved in a discussion about what the millennium will bring for the country with a group of politically aware Egyptians one of whom proffers the opinion that nothing will change.

Tell me, when in all of history did the Egyptian people rebel? When? When ‘Urabi spoke up for them, they sold him out. They ran away and let the British in. You’ll say 1919, but 1919 wasn’t a revolution. It was a few demonstrations and it changed nothing –… Fifty-two? That was not a rebellion of the people. It was an army movement which rode the people and told the people that it spoke with their voice. The people have no voice.

You can’t read this without thinking about what happened during the Arab Spring, about the demonstrations in Tahrir Square and about the problems that the movement towards a more populist voice in the country seems to have encountered in the ensuing months.  I’m not quite certain how to describe the experience I’m having as I re-encounter Soueif’s novel, but re-reading doesn’t seem anywhere near adequate. I feel as if between them the text and my expanded experiences are creating a whole new level of awareness.


14 thoughts on “Crossing the River

  1. This is so true and so interesting. It isn’t that the novel has become dated (and I don’t think that’s what you’re saying) but that now it is differently positioned, as are we, and we can’t help but read it as part of this new context–which is less likely to happen with writing that is less overtly political and historical.

    1. Exactly, Rohan. And the really interesting aspect for me is how quickly something that can appear to be ‘modern’, i.e. the 1997 setting becomes part of history. If I’d re-read this two years ago I would still have been seeing that section to be a comment on the current situation.

  2. A fabulous review, I love Adhaf Souief’s work and she wrote an interesting article about the near impossibility of writing fiction when your country is in the midst of turmoil, however I feel certain she will return to it renewed and inspired.

    How fortunate that a book club brought you to re-read this wonderful book and what an interesting thought process and no doubt discussion will follow it. It is a wonderful thing to have read this book both pre and post, what was most definitely the Egyptian people rebelling, where they wish to be will no doubt take many more years, but a historical turning point it was indeed.

    1. I hope you’re right, Claire. There is a further section which I read after I’d written that post about the possible role of the Fundamentalists in any future government. It is also very interesting reading in the light of present events.

  3. What an interesting rereading experience you are having. The creation of a whole new context that changes the reading of a novel like that doesn’t happen so very often, at least in my experience.

  4. That would be such an interesting experience! I read ‘The Map of Love’ for the first time last year, and all that political context was definitely in my mind when I read it. With such a historically and politically involved novel I guess it’s inevitable that time will impact on the reading of it, but it would definitely make for an interesting rereading experience. Also, I loved it, and I hope it holds up on a reread!

    1. In fact, Catie, for me it has been a far more fulfilling read this time round because, as a result of the last couple of years, I have a much better awareness of the political side of the novel which is so much more interesting than the love story.

  5. Dear Alex, what a fascinating post! I cannot think of a book I’ve reread which has been changed for me in that way. ‘I feel as if between them the text and my expanded experiences are creating a whole new level of awareness’ is just a brilliant comment.

    Have you ever read Robert Sole’s ‘Birds of Passage’? Sole was born in Cairo but moved to France when he was 18, and the novel is about an Egyptian family during the first part of the twentieth century; it’s beautifully written/translated and the political backdrop is very important (in fact, it’s not a backdrop). Maybe I should reread it in view of your experience?

    1. Helen, no I haven’t, although I seem to have a vague memory of seeing the title around somewhere. I will definitely look this out as I would like to run a summer school next year based on Egyptian novels and this might be a likely candidate. Thank you.

  6. I’ve had The Map of Love on my shelf for an awfully long time, and I really must pick it up one day soon. I can imagine how interesting and disorienting the rereading must be. A novel like that, critiquing its political and historical circumstances, must be strange to behold when those circumstances have changed so. All books contain the seed of the future within them, and it must be interesting to see how the real future matches up.

    1. I finished the re-read this afternoon and I think the main emotion I came away with was a blend of relief and shame. Relief that I didn’t have to live my life in the awareness of the way politics was dictating every element of it and shame that as a result I had let myself ignore the details of the conflicts that are daily living for a large percentage of the world. Bottom line is, we don’t know how lucky we are.

  7. I’m like Litlove and have had this book on my TBR shelves for a while now. Your enthusiasm, as well as Rohan’s from a while back, certainly make me more eager to read it. What a fascinating, layered experience you are having with it! I like to reread now and then, but I don’t know that I’ve reread a book whose meaning has changed so much in response to current events.

    1. The discussion was fascinating, although no one else was as interested in the current politics as I am. I do think we in the west fail to realise how much politics can impinge in everyday life in other parts of the world.

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