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El-Wardani 's House of Fire: A flesh-and-blood novel on politics and literature

The discussion on Mahmoud El-Wardani's latest novel at the Cairo Intl Book Fair brings Egypt's history of political struggle to life

Mary Mourad, Sunday 27 Jan 2013
House of Fire Discussion
Cairo International Book Fair book discussion (Photo: Mary Mourad
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Despite all the current violence in major Egyptian cities Cairo International Book Fair's cultural programme managed to stay on track, in particular, the discussion on Saturday, 26 January on the novel House of Fire by Mahmoud El-Wardani. His novel brought the past into the present's context to the small group of readers and book fair visitors.

The novel published by Dar Merit in 2011 is an extended work that spans 370 pages, and some 20 years of recent Egyptian history from 1962 to early 1980s, tracking the life of a young boy, his sister and widowed mother through their struggle to live on their own in the expanding and ever-challenging Cairo metropolis. Mostafa, the protagonist, takes on jobs at an early age, starting as an 'ice delivery boy' (before refrigerators were used in Cairo), then in an ironing shop, and working in a juice shop until he enters college and works in a newspaper, to become a an underground activist in the third generation of the Egyptian Communist party.

The book takes its title, House of Fire, from the fire that is ignited to heat the old metallic irons used in the traditional ironing shops, like one where the protagonist worked.

Critic and anthropologist, Mohamed Hafez Diab, titled it 'an anthropological novel' owing to the three dimensions El-Wardani presents: first, the recollection of history not as a fact-collection process but rather as a living element of the small family's life; second, "pausing at the glory of details," as Diab calls it, to bring the reader deep into the daily lives of Cairenes, almost as if delving into a field study of the era; third, the flowing narrative of the novel unique to El-Wardani.

"El-Wardani brings together the story of the activist and the novelist, mixing imagination and autobiography, to write about everything that is burning in this fire: politics and literature," Diab concludes in his commentary on the book.

Shabaan Youssef, the poet and critic also handling the book fair's Cultural Cafe programme, spoke of the parallel lines El-Wardani takes pleasure in drawing in all his novels. He pointed to the parallelisms between the character of Al-Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohamed, and the Egyptian political martyr, Shohdy Attia.

Youssef also saw a strong autobiographical element in House of Fire, sure that El-Wardani has himself done or witnessed these jobs he wrote about.

El-Wardani revealed that this work has been in the works nearly his whole life, touching lightly between his own life story and the novel. He even drew on an earlier publication, Returning to Barracks (1985), using the story as a chapter in this new book with a new view at his own experience in the army.The most important element in writing this work, says El-Wardani, was letting the novel's characters guide him - and not his memory.

According to Medhat El-Gayar, chief editor of the periodical The Novel, El-Wardani's writing is made of "flesh and blood." He praises El-Wardani's ability to not run away from the autobiography without getting trapped inside it.

El-Wardani won the Sawiris Culture Award in 2011 for his collection of short stories, The Morning Party. He published his first collection in the literature supplement of the Masaii newspaper. His best known work is Walking in the Park at Night written in 1968 but not published until 1984. His other works include Taste of Burning, Music of the Mall and Heads Ripe for Plucking, which was translated into English by AUC press in 2008.

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