This week the New York Public Library hosted a discussion with Robyn Creswell, the author of a new translation of Sonallah Ibrahim’s first novel, That Smell. The novel has been translated before into English but this edition is different in several important ways.
First, Creswell has paired it with excerpts from Ibrahim’s diaries that he wrote in prison under Gamal Abdel Nasser. The excerpts and Creswell’s sincere introduction serve as the footnotes and commentary that might normally accompany a novel like this, which is set in a very specific political and historic context.
The second difference is that Creswell has preserved – to a remarkable extent – the feel of the original Arabic. The paragraphs are unbroken, the language plain, and the dialogue is not set apart from the prose. The effect of Ibrahim’s stylistic choices is devastating in the Arabic, and there is ample reason to try to preserve them in English as Creswell has done.
In short, the novel is about a political prisoner who has just been released from prisons during the Nasser regime. (For readers interested in further detail, Ursula Lindsay has written an excellent profile of , which includes excerpts of the English translation.) The narrator, who remains nameless, wanders around Cairo, visits acquaintances and relatives, and chronicles his daily habits of waking, washing, eating, and sex.
The bleak reality portrayed by this novel is difficult to exaggerate. The protagonist bears witness to countless horrors both in Cairo after being released, but also in prison through flashbacks. He betrays little to no emotion in response to these experiences. He also seems incapable of sustaining normal social interaction, and after a while, the expectation that he do so appears – to this reader – to be almost insane in the first place.
That Smell has long been an inspiration for political activists and serious writers in Egypt, even as it is premised, in many ways, on the end of politics. It is one answer to the question: what happens after the revolution has failed? In this case, the revolution Ibrahim is referencing is the one that Nasser could have led.
I hope that this truly tremendous novel finds in this translation a new audience outside of Egypt. It seems self-evident that, despite the almost fifty years that have passed since it was written, it still contains some damning and important truths about politics and power in Egypt.