In a recent article in the New Left Review , Alice Bamford uses the term “pathos liberalism” to indict many classical liberals, writers and thinkers usually associated with the Victorian period and the early decades of the 20th century. Sometimes I wonder whether the Anglophone literary scene is not dominated by a kind of ‘pathos leftism’ today, at least when it comes to novels.
If so, The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton, son of Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif and British poet (the late) Ian Hamilton, is perfect reading.
Mine is not the sort of swooning compliment showered in liberal and leftist circles on this moving novel, but it is not a dismissal either. After all, one of my favourite authors — Charles Dickens (whom Bamford lists) — belongs solidly to the tradition of ‘pathos liberalism.’ But let’s face it: the man who liked Dickens, to refer to the title and agenda of Evelyn Waugh’s savagely satirical story, is no longer just a man or just confined to the Amazonian forests. I will return to this.
A sense of déjà vu
The City Always Wins is about the failed revolution of 2011 in Egypt. For us who read but did not suffer, it is full of the pathos of the revolution’s “youthful bravery and naïve utopianism,” as J.M. Coetzee, the great novelist who is not naïve and has perhaps never been very youthful, puts it in his blurb. Now, I was quite old when it all began in Tunisia on December 17, 2010.
As the violent and non-violent protests against different kinds of authoritarian governments spread across Morocco, Bahrain, Iran, Algeria, Oman, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, etc. — not all Arab countries, but all thrust into a bright ‘Arab Spring’ by the global media — I remember feeling some hope, much dread, and above all a sense of déjà vu .
This was partly because I was no longer naïve or youthful and partly because, having grown up in small-town India, I knew how easily the great socio-economic differences that exist in all our countries can channel the best of revolutions into the worst of reactionary hands. It is not surprising that what came out of all that hope and bravery was just one democratic change — Tunisia — and a number of festering wounds, ranging from Syria to Sudan and Libya, most of them very profitable for the First World’s increasingly privatised military-industrial complex.
The City Always Wins is about one such festering wound, not, some might add (though it is best not to traffic in draconian comparisons), the worst of them. The novel brings to life the power and the glory of the 2011 revolution in Egypt. Or should I say Cairo, because one of the reasons why such revolutions fail and turn into tales of pathos for liberals and leftists in the West is the glaring chasm between Cairo and Egypt, Damascus and Syria, and, to a lesser extent, Delhi and India.
Omar Robert Hamilton’s promising debut novel focusses on a group of youthful activists in the early part of the 2011 revolution, when democracy — or was it the Muslim Brotherhood? — seemed to be winning. These are ordinary middle-class and metropolitan young men and women inserted by history into an extraordinary situation: “all is changed, changed utterly,” as W.B. Yeats said of a similar revolution in another part of the globe about a century ago.
Some of their trajectories cross with those of people different from them, of a different class or age, of different religious or political convictions. All are drawn with accuracy, affection and conviction, and one is reminded that Hamilton is not just an award-winning filmmaker, but also an activist (co-founder of the Mosireen media collective in Cairo). He combines a filmmaker’s eye for detail with an activist’s drive to communicate a matter of life and death.
Elegy to lost hopes
The novel follows its set of characters with a kind of journalistic doggedness, though often panning from one event to another, one day to another. Divided into three parts — Tomorrow, Today, Yesterday — the sections in the first two parts often bear dates, with gaps in between.
This is an effective technique. It creates the impression of real events lived out in quick succession, and is given historical authenticity by mixing up real characters — activists and ‘martyrs’ of the revolution — with fictional ones.
The central characters are Khalil, who co-founds Chaos , a magazine, website and podcast, and his partner, Miriam, a feminist and a medical worker. After initial success, the army massacres about 900 Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the crew around Chaos splinters. Arrests, beatings, killings strangle the revolution. Under the shadow of Cairo, evoked with great poetry, the novel — with events spliced across its pages at a pace suggesting the feverishness of those days — ends up as an elegy to lost hopes, without succumbing to abject despair.
This is not a mean achievement, as the aim of this book is impassioned reportage rather than critical insight — which makes it a novel destined to appeal to both the pathos liberalism and the pathos leftism of literary circles in London and New York. But Hamilton cannot be faulted for that, can he? Surely, just as Dickens could not be faulted for the reader in Waugh’s story, the man who liked the pathos of Dickens from his safe, self-centred and (finally) complicit isolation?
The City Always Wins ; Omar Robert Hamilton, MCD, ₹449.
Tabish Khair is a poet, novelist and critic based in Denmark, whose latest novel is Jihadi Jane , published as Just Another Jihadi Jane outside India.