Metro: A Story of Cairo by Magdy El Shafee – A Review of a Censored Graphic Novel from Egypt

Metro: A Story of Cairo
Magdy El Shafee
Metropolitan Books, 2012, pg 95

Magdy El Shafee’s Metro: A Story of Cairo is the much anticipated publication in English of the Egyptian author’s banned work. When published in 2008 it was banned for “offending public morals” and remains banned despite the change in government. The offending public morals is one of those classic phrases of despotic regimes and rarely do the artists condemned with those words actually offend anything but the regime’s sense of invincibility. Given the profound changes that have swept over Egypt in the last year and a half, Metro, which was written and baned several years before those events, has taken on not only the voice of protest it has always had, but also a document of the problems that led to the Arab Spring.

The story itself is rather simple: two young software developers Shehab and Mustafa who get shafted on a business deal by a corrupt businessman. They are broke and a friend of theirs, an old man, tells him he is going blind. The two men decide to steal the money using their electronic know-how. It fails but on the way out of the building they come upon a government official demanding a payoff from the head of the bank. In one of those great lines that catches the flavor of the whole book the banker says,

Collateral, your excellency? What collateral? You honor us by taking our loan…

Running parallel to the story is a murder that the boys witness and try to solve . The murder brings them into the ins and out of corruption. The police are untrustworthy, the press is week, and no one seems to care. At one point the one of the boys says,

People are numb. Nothing has any effect on them. They put up with so much, they just say. “Well, that’s how things are in this country of ours.”

And to illustrate that the last third of the novel breaks out into a violent protest march that is  broken up by government thugs pretending to be protesters. It is a prescient part of the book, foretelling the types of protests that were to happen a few years later.

Shafee’s Egypt is burdened down by corrupt politicians, unreliable  police, businessmen who’ll cheat you every chance they get knowing there is no recourse to complain if they are connected, and an economic system that is so dependent on payoffs that it is virtually impossible to start a new business. When the young men try to sell their software they are completely blocked by inaccessibility to funds and corruption. Their only hope is to steal, or to immigrate. To show this complete collapse of possibilities their friend, an old merchant, has given up and has taken to begging. But his begging is just as corrupt and what he says has nothing to do with his economic circumstances. It is impossible to trust anyone when the only way to succeed is to cheat, to steal and to lie. It is a truth that not only fills almost every encounter in the book, but one that Shehab will find even destroys his closest illusions.

Metro is written as a noir with  Shehab narrating in much the same way. He opens the book saying, “We’ve spent our whole lives in this cage, but two weeks ago, when the bars began to close in, things became clearer. Our eyes were opened and we made a decision.” Shehab is a modern outsider, both a hacker and a ninja-like figure who welds a staff like Bruce Lee, one of his heroes. Since computing can be mysterious hacking makes for the perfect type of priestly warrior, one whose special skills allow him to combat the abuses of society. He is a mix of Batman, Philip Marlow, and a Shaolin monk. It can be a stultifying image, one that takes away from the brutal realities he is describing. What saves the book is that almost no one gets what they want. As with all noir the power isn’t necessarily in the reality, but the but the power to show all the corrupt elements of a society at once, even if that creates mythic heroes that lead to their own escapist fantasies.

The art work of Metro is much like that of the cover photo. Occasionally, a guest artist will do a page or two in a completely different style. Many frames are rough and still have the original pencil tracings. It all leads to an impression of a hurried and unfinished place. He also shifts his style to accentuate the comedic as when he draws the beggar in his comic moments. The most polished moments are during the protests when the wide sweep of violence are shown in sweeping gestures, more abstract and more brutal. They were the most effective sequences in the book.

Overall its a fascinating book that still has its roots in the comic, but whose power comes from criticisms. It will be interesting to see if without the urgency of the times, the story will still stand up and not turn into a noir that does not have the power to evoke a society on the edge.

You can read an interview with Shafee at Arab Lit in English.

The Crime Novel Boom In Latin America

El Pais had a short little bit on the crime novel in Latin America. Unsurprisingly, it is now a field of academic study. While I haven’t followed all the developments within the genre I have found it interesting to see the books develop a following. I don’t believe as I’ve heard some crime writers say that the crime novel is really the only type of novel that describes reality. However, they do capture something fascinating.

El escritor y periodista cubano Leonardo Padura -creador del teniente Mario Conde, protagonista de cuatro de sus novelas, todas ambientadas en La Habana- defiende la pujanza de la literatura policiaca iberoamericana. “Con autores como Rubén Fonseca o [Manuel] Vázquez Montalbán no puede ser considerada un género menor”, explica. Sin embargo, Padura no comparte en absoluto que esas obras puedan leerse en clave transatlántica, independientemente del lugar en el que estén ambientadas. “Son novelísticas nacionales. Cuando lees a [Henning] Mankell estás leyendo literatura sueca, cuando lees a Manolo [Vázquez Montalbán] lees literatura española. La novela policiaca, como se asienta tanto en los prototipos nacionales, en las estructuras nacionales, es marcadamente nacional”.

Sea como sea, no existe consenso acerca de si el género policiaco debe ser entendido en función de la idiosincrasia de los lugares donde acaece o debe abordarse desde la interculturalidad. Si bien, entre los ponentes que, además, son escritores, son muchos los que, como Padura, sostienen que el fin último de la novela negra es escrutar la sociedad, promover una mirada crítica sobre ella, por lo que la conexión entre el crimen y el ámbito en el que se comete es insoslayable. “Si no entiendes México, no entiendes la novela de Ignacio Taibo”, señala Rubén Varona, escritor colombiano de 32 años.

The Black Minutes by Martín Solares – A Review of a Mexican Noir

New Year's Cartoon from La Jornada

The Black Minutes
Martín Solares
Black Cat 2010, pg 436

If you’ve read anything about Mexico in the last few years then you know something about The Black Minutes by Martín Solares. The Black Minutes is one of a growing trend of crime novels that, in some ways, are replacing the novel of the cacique as the literary image of Mexico. I know there are plenty of other novels written in Mexico, but the Black Minutes reflects a moment in Mexican history that is wracked with incredible violence and corruption and it only makes sense for Mexican authors to turn to that theme. The question, though, with such overwhelming violence and mind-numbing numbers of disappearances how does a fiction writer address the subject without seeming shrill or a journalist with a few obscured details? Can a novelist make compelling fiction without falling into polemics? Of course that assumes the goal of the writer is to make compelling, entertaining, or what every adjective you want to use that suggests there is an artistic end to the novel. Solares has decided not to write directly about a specific event—the femicides in Juarez—but create his own version of Juarez, a smaller, more manageable one, that exists both in the past and in the now. It is a strategy that makes for a good novel, not just a good crime novel, which it most certainly is, and Solares’s skills as a writer move it beyond genre.

The Black Minutes opens in the present with the brutal murder of a journalist. It is a resonant crime ripped, as one might say, from the headlines. A crusty old policeman, El Maceton,  is put on the case. Little by little he follows the footsteps of the late journalist as he gets closer and closer to what had happened. Along the way he interviews people who tell him to stay away from it  all, that it isn’t worth it. Chief among them is a Jesuit priest who knows more than he is willing to say, but gives the story an already sinister edge of coverups and corruption. Paralleling the story is the constant powerlessness of Meceton in the face of the crime boss’s son who continually threatens him because he took away his gun. Meceton, a man who’d rather watch TV than have sex, is the typical middle aged civil servant, tired, getting headaches when ever there’s trouble around. Just as Maceton is getting close to finding out what happened the crime boss’s son rams his car a few times, before he is killed in traffic.

At this point the story goes back 30 years to follow Vincente Rangel, a failed rock musician and nephew of a long time detective for the police department of Paracuán, Tamaulipas. At first Rangel is just a rookie—intern might be a better word—who follows his uncle around to get on the job training. He has no formal training, no one does, nor does he have a gun. He is part of a police force that works through favors, friendships, and bribes. When the bodies of mutilated and murdered school girls start to appear around town, his uncle is given the task of finding the killer. It falls to Vincente when his uncle dies of a heart attack. As the story unfolds, the level of corruption and old-boy-networking that goes on makes it almost impossible to find who the killer is. Rangel is constantly dealing with people in his own force who want to stop him, with the seemingly endless number of judicial agencies that want him to stop, local officials who what something to happen as long as it doesn’t snare one of their people. And the police force is completely inept, made up of untrained lifers like his uncle, who most are just in the business to get bribes, and the unofficial helpers that each cop has and who they pay to do some of the grunt work, including bringing them coffee. Yet Rangel some how is able to figure it out and more amazing, perseveres in the hunt despite the ever present threats. Just as Rangel is about to bring the killer in, the story switches to the present and Solares wraps the story up tiddly, closing all the chapters where he left a character hanging.

One of Solares’s strengths is the ability to weave this story of corruption and lies through the two different time periods and leave each section unanswered until the very end. The sense of mystery and dread that that evokes through out the novel starts just the background fear surrounding any crime and grows as Rangel and Maceton find themselves, in typical detective fashion, the lone forces of good. But the real power in the novel is his depiction of the chaotic town of  Paracuán as a reflection of a larger Mexico. Readers can be forgiven if they begin to think at some point, it’s a wonder anything gets done in Mexico. Solares’s depiction of every last member of society as somehow corrupt begins to wear the reader down until all that is left is the same foreboding that runs through out the novel: any second I could get it. Yet the Rangel and Maceton don’t succumb and despite the terror that runs throughout the book, and its antecedents in the press, there is some sort of hope still there.

The Mexican writer Jorge Volpi (one of Solares’s friends according to the acknowledgements page) has said more writers should create political novels, novels that meet the actual. The Black Minutes is one of those few cases where the political—and how a society deals with crime is political—and the novelistic are perfectly tuned.

P.S if you want to feel better about Mexico you might try listening to this interview about Mexico City here .

The High Window by Raymond Chandler – A Review

The High Window
Raymond Chandler
Library of America, 1995

Chandler’s The High Window is shorter and less robust than his other novels, but it is one of the few that I have not seen in a movie version (one exists from 1944 but it isn’t considered a particularly good film). In theory that should make for a better reading experience. It has the usual collection of reprobates and self destructive lowlifes. Still, it feels a bit sanitized, as if the real dark side of LA had been overlooked. Sure there are the murders and the mysterious young woman who is kept as a virtual slave in the house of his Marlowe’s client, but there isn’t any tension to them. They just happen 1,2,3 and each time Marlowe goes back to his client, a port drinking shut-in, only to have her refuse to answer his questions. After all that back and forth, Marlowe explains what happened. It is not a particularly interesting way of doing things. Any work of mystery that has to have a lengthy explanation at the end of it to explain what happened is usually a failure. Chandler usually managed to avoid those failures. On the plus side, his depiction of the drunks on Bunker Hill has his typically dark clarity, as do all his depictions of alcoholics. And the young private eye that follows him around only to get killed is funny, if nothing else. As a work of Chandler, though, The High Window is a disappointment. In part because his client, stays in the shadows, both figuratively and literally and does not animate the novel the way Farewell, My Lovely or The Big Sleep. Without that interaction in the plot, something is missing. The High Window is, at best, an intermezzo between his better works, and one any person new to Chandler should not read first.

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler – A Review

Farewell My Lovely
Raymond Chandler
Library of America, 1995

The problem with Chandler is that every time I read him I hear voices: Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery and even Gerald Mohr (thankfully, not Elliot Gould). Because I’ve listened to dozens of Richard Diamond radio shows Dick Powell is the foremost of the voices, but they’re all there and as I read the novel itself seems strange, foreign, as if it were the fake and all the films and radio versions were the real thing. That cultural ever-presence distracts one from the source and obfuscates through layers of sanitizing changes the real Chandler and his clear observations. As I read him, scraping away layers of Hollywood, I’m always surprised at the society Chandler describes: its as petty and real as the one I know. There is no tabu that he is unwilling to acknowledge and it is that willingness to show every nasty detail that makes returning to his books so rewarding.

When thinking about Chandler, if you can separate yourself from the film and radio versions, the way he constructs the narrative voice is refreshingly clean, edited down to an almost editorially free mode of observation. That the observations are commentaries in of themselves goes without saying, but he always remains professionally detached. Perhaps not to the level of a Johnny Dollar, but its there. Of course, that detachment is suspect with women characters. Still even his romantic interests have the sense of the reportage about them. This might not seem so important, but when compared to his contemporaries, even some non crime writing, the clarity of his work, uncluttered by repeating the obvious via internal monologues.  While I hate the “show don’t tell” prescription to writers, Chandler is one writer who knew how to follow it and it makes his work still stand.

Farewell, My Lovely opens with a clear eyed description of the changing racial make up of LA. Marlowe goes to a bar in central LA that had changed from white to black clientele. Like most things in these Chandler novels, Marlowe is in the area on a case and sees a tough enter the bar and decides to follow him in. It’s there that Chandler sketches the racial tensions of the changing city as the tough, Moose Malloy, cannot understand how the bar could change. That aggravation, first shown verbally through racial slurs, is ultimately expressed in a violence that leads to murder. When Marlowe is interviewed by the police, Chandler again shows the complete indifference of white society to the minorities. The cop in charge wants some glory from the case, but knows he’ll get nothing from it because no one cares. In those opening pages he sets up a great critique of LA, dark as it can be, and Marlowe is restrained in using racist language (he sticks with the then common negro).

Where his work breaks down, is the silly Indian character who seems like some stereotype right out of the movies. At one point in the book he is captured by a crime boss. One of his henchmen is an Indian who has a sideline as an Indian in western movies. Problem is, he talks as if he were on the plains of the old west circa 1880. Perhaps it was supposed to be a joke, but the only thing it is silly. Where he captured the corruption and racial tensions of LA in the bar scene, here he just imports mid century stereotypes for a little buffoonery that is not funny at all.

Still, it is the I don’t give a damn about you attitude that permeates the characters that makes the book so fresh. Nor is is a cartoonish look. Here I’m specifically thinking of the drunk woman he visits repeatedly. This isn’t a Hollywood drunk of so many noir films that has some semblance of control, but a total wastrel whose only goal in life is the next bottle. The busybody across the street from the woman is interesting, too, a nice depiction of the non criminal, but still having the Chandler eye for details.

Plenty of people have commented on the logic of his plots so I won’t bother here, and really I don’t care. They are good enough for me. It is the world he creates that interests me. But one thing that will strike anyone is that Marlowe is lucky and that several moments of the book hinge on fortunate accidents, especially when he is in a dark canyon and hit over the head and a young woman comes to his rescue. And the chances he takes, such as sneaking on to the gambling ship anchored off Bay City to confront the a crime boss. Occasionally, it is a little too much and were it not for the writing, perhaps it would be. (I can’t help but imagine Marlowe years latter suffering dementia for all the certain concussions he’s received.) Yet despite all that Farewell, My Lovely is an excellent piece of noir that rises above so much of the pulp material of the era (I’ve been reading some of it and have been quite disappointed. Just compare the first paragraph of Chandler’s Red Wind to anything else and you’ll see what I mean). One I could easily read again and hopefully, finally, get those voices out of my head.

More on Mexican Noir and the Black Minutes

The Quarterly Conversation tipped me off to this review at the Nation written by the Translator Natasha Wimmer about the Black Minutes from Martín Solares. I’ve mentioned this book before and I continue to be intrigued by it. I think I will have to read it soon (and turn my gaze from Spain back to Mexico). Considering the troubles in Mexico the book seems timely, which may also be why it has been translated. Along with her praise of the book Wimmer gives some context to Mexican Noir, which is a new phenomenon, something that surprised me since I’m so used to the noir genre, even its imports from abroad. I wonder, though, if anyone can name noir works from Latin America as I’m at a loss at the moment?

Depending on how you look at it, the noir novel is either perfectly suited to Mexico or beside the point. It’s hard to imagine a plot that somehow encompasses the August massacre of seventy-two migrants in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas, for example, or the Zacatecas jailbreak in late May when fifty-three inmates simply walked out of their cells. The scale of real-life crime is such that it dwarfs the classic private eye and makes him irrelevant.

And yet Martín Solares’s first novel, The Black Minutes, an uncommonly nuanced neo-noir—set, as it happens, in Tamaulipas—may be exactly the right book to read at the end of 2010, a particularly dark year in recent Mexican history. It’s crime fiction, but it’s also a meditation on corruption, and it captures the kind of nightmarish helplessness that many feel in the face of the tide of narco-violence sweeping the north of Mexico. In Tamaulipas alone, assassinations since June include the front-runner candidate for governor of the state and two mayors of a single small town over the course of two weeks. On September 19, after the killing of a photography intern, the Ciudad Juárez paper El Diario ran an extraordinary editorial asking the drug gangs for instruction: “We want you to explain to us what…we are supposed to publish or not publish…. You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city.” Scraping away some of the cool remove of the traditional noir, The Black Minutes gives a gorgeous, suffocating sense of life in Mexico’s sweltering northeast and an equally smothering sense of a justice system in which the concept of justice has been leached of meaning.


Martín Solares’ Mexican Noir Novel Reviewed at NY Times

Martín Solares novel The Black Minutes was reviewed by the NY Times. It is a positive review and for a crime novel it sounds a little atypical. Perhaps one of the reasons it was translated was it has a sense of the urgent with characters involved in the drug trade and corruption, something that is plaguing Mexico. While I don’t read much crime fiction, done right it can transcend the genre and become a report on its times. Considering Jorge Volpi’s call for a more committed literature, perhaps this novel is a good example in the Mexican context.

The best detective novels are those that go beyond the limitations of genre and a specific story to limn the broader society in which they take place. Mr. Solares does that in a profound but entertaining fashion here, revealing the surprising subterranean linkages that give politicians, the police, labor unions, drug cartels, the Roman Catholic Church, business interests and sectors of the press an interest in covering up the truth of the two cases.

To that end he makes especially effective and clever use of the separate time frames, one of whose purposes is to show how chronic, endemic corruption erodes the desire and ability of the individual to do the right thing, or even to act at all. Current-day Paracuán’s duplicitous police chief, Joaquín Taboada, is thus shown as a young, somewhat bumbling officer in the 1970s with the hilarious nickname El Travolta. There is also Fritz Tschanz, an immigrant Jesuit priest who knows so much and has heard so many sordid confessions over the years that his world-weariness has paralyzed him.

Over all it sounds good, but I’m not sure what ethnic types he is talking about:

But Mr. Solares is a graceful, even poetic, writer, especially in his hard-boiled dialogue and his descriptions of the wildly varied landscapes and ethnic types of northern Mexico. Though the world of “The Black Minutes” is one to inspire fear and revulsion, Mr. Solares’s descriptions of it are oddly beautiful and fascinating in the same way that overturning a rock and observing the maggots beneath can be a perversely edifying spectacle.

Among Thieves – A Review

Mez Packer’s Among Thieves is British ska noir, a combination of the 2 Tone seen in early 80’s England and drug dealers and low grade criminals. What gives the book promise is the setting with the music and rebelliousness and an energy set against a dreary England rife with unemployment and disappointment. The characters would be tough and use enough slang you’d feel you were in Coventry. And the novel begins that way when Jez, a Jamaican, begins to narrate the book. The book quickly switches, though, to other narrators and the energy Jez gives the novel is lost and it becomes a just a novel of petty friendships and animosities.

Briefly, the plot follows four characters. Pad and Andy are friends and drug dealers. They make good money but they soon fall out and would not have much to do with each other, but Andy owes the IRA 25,000 pounds and needs Pads help. They try different schemes: passing counterfeit money in Spain; smuggling drugs into England. Nothing works correctly because Pads hates Andy too much. Jez is in the middle of every plan, always getting the raw end, but adding some edge to the story. Finally, Ahmett narrates the story of his flight from Albania, which seems unconnected, but at the very end of the novel connects all the points of the story.

What makes Among Thieves a weak novel is the unfocused plot. While a crime novel could be less plot driven, Among Thieves seeks complexity in the plot, but what occurs is not complexity but lethargy as Pads complains about Andy getting his girl or telling us how jealous he is that Andy might sleep with one of his drug couriers. Instead of tension, you have the sense of listening in on high schoolers gossiping. No, not all drug dealers have to be hardboiled toughs, but winers are tedious.

A second problem is Ahmett. Most of his narration is about his escape from Albania and has nothing to do with the central plot. While the twist at the end of the book links him to the story, the long sections of his life only serve to slow down the intrigues between Pads and Andy. In a novel of intrigues, each part must heighten the intrigue otherwise the book ceases to be intriguing .

The one bright spot in the novel is Jez who brings an energy to the narration that is often lacking when Pads narrates. It is obvious the Packer can create interesting characters and knows how to give them life. Perhaps in her next work the characters will be more consistently interesting.

While reminiscent of Train Spotting and Snatch, Among Thieves has neither the dark introspection of the former nor the well plotted story of latter; however, it does fit squarely amongst the British crime genre of the last 20 years.

Historic Raymond Chandler in the LA Times

The Daily Mirror, the LA Times blog about LA and LA Times history, has been running a great series on Raymond Chandler on the  50th anniversary of his death. There are some great bits they have found.

  1. A lost kinesocope of the Long Good-Bye with Dick Powell. I’d love to see that one.
  2. An interview with Chandler and James M Cain where the reporter says Chandler doesn’t drink. I doubt that one.
  3. An article on the stars who played Marlowe.
  4. Review of Farewell My Lovely in the Times.
  5. Review of the Big Sleep.
  6. A 1987 look at the geography in his stories. Only really good if you know LA, which I do.