Beer in the Snooker Hall by Waguih Ghali
|Beer in the Snooker Hall by Waguih Ghali|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Robin Leggett|
|Summary: A humourous and sympathetic Egyptian struggles to balance idealism with reality in 1950s Cairo in this thoughtful and brilliantly characterised book. There's a touch of the English rogue and a touch of the Salinger's Holden Caulfield in this Arab story.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 220||Date: December 2010|
|Publisher: Serpent's Tail|
Waguih Ghali's only novel, first published in 1964, is set in 1950s Egypt where the English have just left and the country is in great social and political change, and is under Army rule. Ram is an English educated, Copt Egyptian of aristocratic background, but his side of the family are penniless and dependent on the good will of manipulative, rich aunts. Ram and his best friend Font (who works in the eponymous snooker club) struggle to come to terms with this emerging Egypt. These are the facts of the plot, such as it is, but in reality this book is as ambiguous as the situation in which Ram finds himself. The book is like a delicate soufflé; it appears light on the surface but is deeply measured and brings out a myriad of conflicting views.
Ram and Font are both Anglophiles, brought on in part by their English education, but also by their love of literature. This love of the English doesn't stretch to English involvement in Egypt and, when they find themselves in England courtesy of Ram's rich, Jewish girlfriend, Ram in particular gives vent to an English soldier who has been involved in the Suez region. Indeed, Ram and Font's experience of life in England is a long way from their idealised imaginings.
This is just one of the many conflicts in the book faced by Ram. He's torn for example between political activism on behalf of the downtrodden fellaheen but at the same time, he's somewhat lazy and self-interested. His life is quite comfortable, despite his lack of financial resources as he is highly effective at getting his friends or family to pay for everything, not least his alcohol and gambling.
I need to stop at this point and emphasise that it's also very, very funny in places. Sometimes this is plain humour and at others, it can be bitingly satirical. Ram points out to a virginal local girl 'it's better to have loved and had a venereal, then never to have loved at all'. But for all this attraction to the Western ways, he remains an Egyptian at heart. But exactly what it means to be an Egyptian and what that entails is one of the main themes of this book.
Ghali's light touch hides a thorough understanding on the human condition and touches on issues of national identity, politics and culture. Egypt has always been a melting pot of culture, religion and outlook and Ghali brilliantly portrays this without explaining it. In short, he shows rather than tells.
It's also one of those books that takes a while for the reader to get his or her bearings. It sort of jumps in and, for me at least, it didn't start to come together until the second part. In part this is due to the absence of plot in the true sense of the word. It's about Ram trying to find his place in the world as a young Egyptian of privileged background. Part of this is his search for a partner, balancing love against pressures from his aunts to arrange a match for him.
There's a touch of the rogue and waster in Ram but he's a delightfully funny and sympathetic character. Then again, he loves books, so he must be OK, right? It's a book that's easier to love and enjoy than it is to explain why this is so. It's like watching Judi Dench on stage - you know it's quite brilliant, but you're not exactly sure what makes it so much better than everyone else!
As with all the Serpent's Tail Classics, there is an intelligent introduction, this time provided by Ghali's friend, the inimitable Diana Athill, in whose flat Ghali was to commit suicide in 1969.
Our thanks, as ever, to those nice people at Serpent's Tail for sending this to the Bookbag.
The challenges of social and political change are also addressed, albeit in a very different way, in this year's Booker-nominated Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey.
You can read more book reviews or buy Beer in the Snooker Hall by Waguih Ghali at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Beer in the Snooker Hall by Waguih Ghali at Amazon.com.
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