Friday, January 23, 2009

The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, by Emile Habiby

The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, by Emile Habiby
English translation, 1974, 192 pp.

Arabic literature does not feature many novels, and of those, perhaps only this one is meant as a comedy. Theories abound concerning the connections between the development of the novel and the rise of European Enlightenment humanism, capitalist production, and atomized social organization. These are many and fascinating, but have little explanatory power as to why Africa, India, and Latin America produce dozens of splendid novels, but the entire Arabic-speaking world very few. Bernard Lewis would argue that it is a symptom of Islam's failure to reconcile itself with modernity, though that explanation fails to address Turkish and Indian literature, or Arabic poetry. As to the comic point, the dark fatalist humor Habiby finds in the 1948 and 1967 disasters which befell his people (Habiby was a Palestinian communist journalist) strike this reviewer as almost, well, reminiscent of stereotypical Jewish humor. The titular "pessoptimist," for instance, is a combination of "pessimist" and "optimist" and refers to Saeed's persistent belief that no matter what disaster befalls him, an even greater one was averted. I think Mel Brooks did this gag at one point.

The Secret Life of Saeed is billed as an ironic social commentary, plainly modeled on Voltaire's Candide to the extent that the parallel is made openly in one chapter. Saeed is a dimwitted Palestinian who wanders listlessly through short, surreally -titled chapters in what appears to be the timeless literary device of using a convenient idiot to demonstrate the tragedy of sweeping historical events. Indeed, this device is so timeless that during the chapters which actually feature some social satire, the echoes of virtually every satirist since Jonathan Swift become so loud that the misfortunes of Saeed do not seem specific to the unique sufferings of the Palestinian people, but instead appear essentially interchangeable with something Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller might have produced on a particularly unambitious day. This is not the story of the depredations the Palestinians have suffered, but rather about the absurdity of living in a modern state.

The novel is divided into three sections, each named for the woman Saeed loves at the time. Of these the second is certainly the strongest. It features the actual bits of social satire, most of which is solid. The Israeli police demand that Saeed prove his furniture is not stolen, and he assures them that it, like himself, is property of the state. Saeed's demonstrations of loyalty are considered too conspicuous and he is thrown in jail for disloyalty. People going home are deported for being infiltrators. And so on. The first and third sections revolve more around Saeed's desperate love for a woman named Yuaad, and then her daughter (also, confusingly, named Yuaad, which I guess is fitting, since Yuaad means "once again"). These sections are the least concrete, most bewildering, and contain very little of the promised social satire. Twenty years pass unremarked. For thirty pages we (and Saeed) think the third Yuaad is actually the first Yuaad. And so forth. By the end, Saeed finds himself repeatedly sitting on top of a tall pillar (in what I desperately hope is an allusion to Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder), having befriended a man from space, who is not described and who serves only the murkiest role in the narrative.

It is difficult to tell how much is lost in translation. The book is difficult to follow: characters are often not named, confusingly referred to in different ways, and the events which give their names to chapters happen either peripherally or sometimes not at all. Times and places are bewilderingly and haphazardly conflated. Perhaps this is a deliberate and opaque choice by Habiby, or perhaps it is a failure of translation. There certainly are recurring themes of Palestinian identity, dispossession, and fatalism in the face of apparently endless and malicious history. The chapters are so brief, though, and the characters so ill-defined that Habiby never really develops an idea. It is clear that these themes exist, but I'm still not entirely certain what Habiby has to say about them. If anything, the Israelis in the book tend to be regular people serving a state which is absurd, and the Palestinians tend to be the ones who behave badly of their own free will. It's a peculiar little novel with a few clever conceits, but it will never be mentioned in the same breath as Catch-22.

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