New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group/Tim Duggan Books, 2016. 192 pages. $22.00.
The subtitle of Yasmine El Rashidi’s subtle, powerful Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt sets up an expectation that the book itself both fulfills and subverts: that its story of an individual life will also be representative—that one person can embody as well as inhabit a time and place in history. Simply structured, with each of its three parts recounting one summer in the life of its unnamed narrator, Chronicle of a Last Summer both conforms to and resists the familiar model of the bildungsroman, which conventionally tracks its protagonist’s growth from youthful uncertainty to mature resolution. Chronicle of a Last Summer does follow its heroine from childhood to adulthood, but it breaks the implicit promise that this chronological journey equals progress. Instead, the passage of time leaves the narrator, and us, certain only of the inevitability of further change.
When Chronicle of a Last Summer begins in 1984, the narrator is a child of six. She is observant but often puzzled about what she sees and hears: her world is full of unanswered questions, and she is surrounded by absences, by gaps created by “things that are there for a very long time and then disappear”—abandoned cars, street kiosks, people, including her father, Baba. She notices it all and wonders, but she is not allowed to understand:
Every time I see a policeman going into a building I think maybe they will take someone away. In class I write a story called The Disappearing People. I write about going to the prison. I write about the people they take away. It happens only at night. My teacher gives me zero out of ten and says I shouldn’t be writing such things at my age.
Through her steady but unknowing eyes we glimpse an uneasily shifting political landscape, the complexities of which defy the one-dimensional narratives of the government’s incessant TV broadcasts. Her own family, unified by affection, is divided by their different convictions: “Nasser did great things for Egypt. Mama doesn’t like him. Baba does.” The narrator attends the English school, which her cousin Dido protests “is the only thing left of the monarchy and colonialism. Mama and Baba are antirevolutionary for sending me there. Where did their nationalism go?” The narrator, childlike, does not understand these wider implications. She would prefer the Arabic school not out of nationalism, but because the students there get more summer holidays and no homework: “It wasn’t fair.” It’s personal for her, not political—only later will she learn to articulate and then question this distinction.
Around her are other signs that Egypt is changing. Her own home is one: it seems to her “like a castle,” but its elegance (like its lush, treed gardens) is in decline, and she and her mother inhabit less and less of it. She can see but not interpret the connections between this intimate family space and the revolution. She knows that “Mama lost many friends because of Nasser.” “How come they didn’t take our house when they took all of Mama’s friends’ houses?” she wonders; “Mama says the house is the only thing we have left. Dido doesn’t say anything.” She loves driving to school, down “the long street on the Nile”:
There were people rowing boats in the mornings. You could see them through the fence along the river. When Mama was little there were no fences. She would take her book and beach chair and walk down to the water. She would sit reading with her toes dipped in. The Nile was blue. Then it became green. Mama would never dip her toes in the water now.
Over time, that view of the Nile is increasingly obscured. In 1998, “What was once a view of the Nile, of rowers plowing through thick waters in the morning, is now just fence, wall, fence, overgrown garbage-filled hedge”; in 2014, she walks “all the way down the fenced-off Nile” but can see “none of the river except at the rowing club where a metal gate was flung open. Hedges had overgrown and turned ashen and been littered and then covered with corrugated metal.” The timelessness of the river itself highlights the degradation brought by time’s passing, much of it in the name of progress. “Revolution. What does it mean?” the girl asks her cousin. “You could say it means change. Do Mama and Baba think it was good? It’s complicated.”
At first it seems that it is just the narrator’s naïveté that stands between her (and therefore us) and greater clarity about which changes are good or bad, about who is right in the disagreements that swirl around her, over her head—about Nasser, about Sadat, about Mubarak, about the Islamic Brotherhood. The novel does not offer the misleading comforts of simplification, however: as she grows older, the narrator’s questions only become more complicated. As a film student in 1998, she feels detachment rather than confusion; still a keen observer, she looks for ways to represent, not fill, the gaps in her knowledge: “Now I wondered about the poetics of space, the cavities people once filled.” She wants to capture “this internal life, the intimate moments at home, the mundane. How did we land in our lives?”
Is her artistic distance, her dedication to “the mundane,” just a way of avoiding political commitment? Dido thinks so: he wants her to “involve myself in politics, to make documentary films about dissidents rather than the cinematic ambitions of fictional cinéma vérité I have.” But she does not feel the urgency, the anger, such activism requires. In 2014, after the January Revolution of 2011 and the further wave of protests in 2013, she questions her choice to stay mostly on the sidelines:
I wonder if my position is too often ambiguous. A position of trying to weigh things and assess and be objective is sometimes a clear position, and sometimes no position at all.
But activism risks becoming absolutism: another cousin tells her she worries Dido himself has become intolerant “of experiences that strayed from his ideals.” To fight for something you have to define it, to make its boundaries perfectly clear; such strictness comes at the expense of both personal and political complexity.
Chronicle of a Last Summer sets itself against any such absolutism: it refuses to subsume individual details into grand narratives, especially those promised by the heroic language of revolution. When Baba at last returns, his daughter is eager to draw him into her excitement at the protests. She is initially frustrated by his pessimism, but she comes to see that it is the lesson of longer experience with “this cyclical history I was just beginning to grasp in the aftermath of uprising”: “he tells me that he knew a revolution would change nothing.”
The austere minimalism of El Rashidi’s prose is appropriate to these lowered expectations: its precise, unadorned sentences never rise to crescendos. While trying to imagine the right form for her own writing, the narrator reads about the “literature of defeat”—a literature in which, after Egypt’s losses to Israel in 1967, “everything was stripped down to fundamentals, bare, deflated.” The critics she reads contrast this style to the detailed realism of Naguib Mahfouz or “the virtuous eloquence of Arabic literature.” What might “a new Egyptian modernism, founded in the vernacular” look like, she wonders. If Chronicle of a Last Summer is an implicit answer to that question, then it looks muted and interrogative, attentive to suggestive particulars but resistant to triumphalist teleologies. It will describe, but it will refuse any pressure to explain, to be authoritative.
“Some days I still just want to erase it all,” the narrator says, “shake off the shadow of disappointment.” Still, like the Nile, her life keeps moving forward though its path is obscured. At the end of the novel she and her mother are packing up. “The conversations around leaving the house and what it might mean,” she says, “for how we live and all we have known have been few, and cautious.” They do not know exactly what will come next, but at least this time the change is one they have chosen. And because this story of her life is also “a novel of Egypt,” this ending raises the faint hope that, next time, the same will be true for her country.