“The Hunter of the Chrysalises” favourite to win Arabic Booker

Sayed Mahmoud, Sunday 13 Mar 2011

Taj Al-Sirr's novel offers insights into modern Sudanese literature and has the highest chance of winning the Arabic Booker

Sa'd Al-Yarakat (The Hunter of the  Chrysalises), by Amir Taj Al-Sirr, Abu Dhabi-Algiers:  Ekhtelaf Publications and Thaqafa Publishing, 2010. pp 148

The winner of the International Prize for Arabic Literature, known as the Arabic Booker, will be announced tomorrow, Monday 14th March in Abu Dhabi.  The 2011 fourth round of the Booker will be attended by all the short-listed authors and their publishers and the committee will publish selected parts from all six shortlisted novels, which will also be translated into English.

The committee of judges for this round includes the Iraqi critic, Fadhil Al-Azzawi, the Bahraini researcher and critic Munira al-Fadhel, with the Moroccan writer and critic Said Yaktine.

The shortlist includes Moroccans Bensalem Himmich for "My Tormentor and Mohammed Achaari for his book of poetry “The Arch and the Butterfly",  Saudi writer Raja Alem for “The Doves’ Necklace”,  Egyptians Khalid Al-Bari for “An Oriental Dance” and Miral El-Tahawy for “Brooklyn Heights” and finally, Amir Taj Al-Sir from Sudan for “The Hunter of the Chrysalises”.

Of all the nominated works, “The Hunter of the Chrysalises” seems to have the best chance of winning, bearing in mind the difficulty for an Egyptian winner.  There were two Egyptian winners in the first and second round, Bahaa Taher and Youssef Zeidan, so Miral El-Tahawy and Kahlid Al-Bari’s chances are low.

It is the same for the Saudi author, following last year’s winner Abdou Khal from Saudi Arabia, rendering the choice of Alem, a renowned writer, less likely as it would put the committee in a difficult position.

The choice of either of the two Moroccans, both who have held the position of Minister of Culture with Himmich still in the post, will also cause a stir.

In addition to these considerations, the award’s mandate states that the award is for an Arabic text, regardless of its author’s nationality or position. 

The Hunter of the Chrysalises” opens a door to shed light on modern Sudanese literature, almost unknown in today’s world despite some famous authors, including Al-Sir who has written nine works including “Ants Invasion” in 2008, “A Copt’s Concerns” in 2009, and “French Perfume” in 2010.  “A Copt's Concerns” was nominated for Booker’s long list in 2009 but never made it beyond that.

Various artistic aspects explain the potential of “The Hunter of the Chrysalises”, which has attracted a lot of interest from critics, including Sabry Hafez and the Palestinian Faisal Draj.

The book revolves around a complex yet humorous topic. The story Is about  a police officer, Abdalla Harfash who has retired after his leg has been amputated.  He then decides to write a novel, believing that writing is easy, although he has never read anything in his life other than a book about magic and another about marriage.  Harfash has never even stopped in front of a library except to watch and then write a report about an intellectual “suspect” being observed by the security police.

Even with his lack of experience in the world of writing, he decides to follow in the footsteps of a famous writer who frequents a café in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Harfash introduces himself to a group of authors as a “beginner” and offers his book to the famous author to read, only to be told that it looks like a security report and not a novel.

In his attempt to get some raw material for writing, Harfash finds two characters which are perfect for the roles of heroes in his dream book, and he starts to write about them. These heroes are his aunt’s husband, who’s a masseur for a football team and loves acting, and a grave-digger honoured by the authorities.

The famous author looks at this new writing and encourages him to continue, describing what Harfash has found as "chrysalises that need time to become butterflies". Gradually, the relationship between the two becomes stronger.  They meet frequently and Harfash tells his friend about his past and present, and his desire for change.

However the famous author disappears suddenly, and in his own mind Harfash accuses him of stealing his ideas to write a new novel.

In an unexpected twist, the head of the police calls Harfash and asks him to return. The first task for the policeman is to watch the famous author and record his movements.

Harfash bumps into the author and asks him about his new novel and is surprised when he learns that he has written about Harfash himself as the main character in his new work. 

Al-Sirr’s novel is very symbolic, revealing the powerful presence of security systems, a state common in Arab societies.  It demonstrates their ability to warp anyone working there and also to mess with people’s destinies, whether its own people or those who are targets for its corrupt operations.  

There are many indications of the crisis within our own communities regarding religious discrimination, when in the book the Christian librarian appears as an easy target for prejudice and suppression.

Although the novel mainly deals with “novel writing”, using the “novel inside a novel” technique, where the writer tells the story of a writer, mingling events and protagonists as in “Warraq Al-Hub”  by Khalil Sualeh, which won the Naguib Mahfouz medal for literature.

Al-Sirr has not fallen into the trap of repetition or the temptation of the “world of intellectuals” with all its gossip, but rather focused on the search for the models, or “chrysalises.”

He writes using exciting narrative language, with a clear attempt to marry the narrative and poetry, in addition to maintaining the powerful irony.  He  does not incline into “cold politics”, but rather chooses to stay with the freshness of life and travel into the realm of imagination.



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