Egyptian author Youssef Rakha has produced two books, both of which are exceptional. His breakthrough novel, Book of the Sultan’s Seal, was published as the 25 January revolution was in full tilt. His second, recently translated into English, came out on the eve of the counter-revolution.
Rakha’s style is difficult to categorise. His book is narrated in numbered paragraphs and slips between prose and poem. It jumps in time, and between different characters at different points of their lives.
The basic premise revolves around the foundation of a secret poetry society, The Crocodiles. The group was set up in 1997 following the suicide of a celebrated student activist. It ends with another suicide, set against the Tahrir uprising and the battles on Mohammad Mahmoud street. This is not a novel about the 25 January revolution, but about those who would go on to make it. It captures the sometimes anarchic mood of a generation that sought out any avenue of revolt in a society sinking under the repression of Mubarak’s police.
The book ignores any rules about time and space. One section dealing with an event in 1999 is suddenly interrupted by the choking gasses of Tahrir, or descriptions of wild parties where young urbanites blend love of Arab culture, American beat poetry, drugs, sex, violent arguments, “Satanic” heavy metal music and clumsy intellectualism. The Crocodiles breaks all the norms of the novel; it has no conventional structure, it jumps and cuts, breaks off from one narrative only to pick up the thread later.
Its description of sex, a very taboo subject in Arab society, is shockingly frank, descriptive and at times uncomfortable. The poetry of the group is sometimes base and usually involves the constant reinterpretation of the same poem.
The short descriptions of Tahrir and the battles that follow are some of the most lucid to have been written.
The jolts in the narrative, such as the first outbreak of protest in 2001, crash in on the poets, who for the rest of the time are too involved in their own world to take much notice of the society around them.
The Crocodiles is utterly absorbing, original and fascinating.