“All good novelists have bad memories.”
Omar Robert Hamilton’s debut novel, The City Always Wins, capturing Cairo in the convulsions of the revolution, brought back a bad memory of Srinagar. In the summer of 2010, one still, sickly hot evening in the capital city of Kashmir, I found myself in the working-class neighborhood of Batamalyun. The modestly built house of bricks formed the dead-end of the dust street. I went inside and found Fayaz Rah, the 39-year-old fruit vendor who I wanted to interview. A solidly-built man, he sat cross-legged in the sitting room, his back pressed to the wall. “At eight,” he said, “one does not understand what protests during a curfew could mean.” Two weeks ago, on the afternoon of August 2, his eight-year-old son, Sameer, had left the house to play with his friends. In a back alley, Indian paramilitaries, angry that since 2008 Kashmiris had been protesting and hurling stones and slogans of aazadi, independence, at them, caught Sameer and beat him with bamboo sticks.
Inside, Fayaz continued to narrate the story. Outside, the night began to fall. His quiet voice floated in the long, darkened room. I became restless and fidgety. I wanted the roof to fall down; and I wanted the walls to crumble. I wanted him to stumble or stop altogether, because in my mind I was already stumbling and failing to write the essay I so badly wanted to write. “He had bought a candy…,” the father cried. “I’d not know. But when the ambulance [van] brought Sameer home and I held his dead body in my arms, I found the candy in his mouth. It was half-broken and stuck between his upper teeth.”
The City Always Wins follows Khalil, an American-born young man of Palestinian origin. A lover of revolution and jazz, he, and a group of lefty friends, tirelessly film videos and record interviews of the revolution to upload a website called Chaos. Hamilton, a film maker by profession, arrests readers with auditory and visual details of the city flooded with democratic rage against Hosni Mubarak’s protracted presidency. But the novel is not just an intimate act of witness to the outpourings of the people protesting in Tahrir Square and the military brutalities and massacres that followed; the novel’s strength lies rather in the moments that unfold within the quiet of houses rather than the roar of the street, for instance, when Khalil, accompanying a French documentary crew talks to the father whose son has been killed.
Abu Bassem’s dignity is somehow unbearable. He doesn’t cry or curse or swear vendetta. But he is not defeated. Khalil feels somehow animal in contrast to the older man, his stillness, that he must be enraged for him, that he must do the crying, the stumbling.
During the interview, the French director, a technology-laden neo-Orientalist, gets impatient and irritated while Khalil and Abu Bassem speak in Arabic, leaving him out of the conversation. Kahlil feels “suddenly, burningly foreign, a tour operator cashing in on other people’s misery, a cheap Virgil to guide foreigners through the city’s labyrinth of martyrdom.”
Journalism and reportage are arguably more suited to the act of witnessing, while fiction is a place for quieter recollection and contemplation of the self and what has become of it through said witnessing. Throughout the book, Hamilton’s voice has two distinct and somewhat conflicting tendencies. One is the desire to be a direct witness to the revolution, to report the street without the façade and filter of characters. The other is to analyze the act of witnessing by measuring the impact it has had on the lives of the characters and the decisions they make. With its quickly shifting points of view, its staccato vignettes and serrated phrases soaring into lament and lyricism, City reads best in those sections where the intensity of witnessing is informed by the mood brought about by the psychological transformation: the opening passage, for instance, wherein Khalil’s girlfriend, Mariam, grapples with the bodies remorselessly “crushed under tanks” during the march to Maspero. The urgent rendering of sensual details hits one like the miasma of death hanging in the morgue.
She stopped counting the dead an hour ago. These corridors are so compressed with bodies and rage and grief that something, surely, is going to explode. Everywhere are the cries of a new loss, a shouted question, a panicked face, a weeping phone call…Blocks of ice are melting between the bodies of the fallen, vapors whispering off the flesh of the silenced.
Hamilton has channeled the effusive energy of the revolution to create a narrative of stunning fragments. But because the desire to be a witness outweighs the desire to put the witness to a novelistic examination, the fragments hardly coalesce to constitute a novel. The joy lies in reading the vignettes individually, lucent and often phantasmagorical, which fail to string together to make a seamless sustained narrative in which one could follow Khalil’s physical and psychological journey through the potentially hurting landscape of the city. The result is that Khalil, though unhinged, dispossessed and selflessly utopian, is not realized to the full arc of his rage.
With the rise of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to power, the energies of the revolution are frustrated. But as the need to replace Morsi becomes clearer and Cairo begins to cheer for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Khalil feels lost and misdirected. After breaking up with Mariam and witnessing the death of a close friend, he returns to New York.
Hamilton recreates chunks of Khalil’s beleaguered consciousness with the fidelity of an impressionist, and one’s knowledge of Khalil at the end is almost the same as it was at the beginning. Between him and the reader are the smoke-blurred, blood-spattered streets of Cairo longing for liberation, the city itself the most vocal of all the characters. Khalil’s voice is interchangeable with the voice of other characters. It is the authorial voice that dominates and diminishes him. At times, the dialogue is too dramatic to be credible.
Novels make certain demands as to how to properly employ memory. To fictionalize a bad memory like the one recounted at the beginning of this essay, mere impressionistic rendering of how the boy was bludgeoned to death will not do. One must put to the novelistic scrutiny the complex churning within the self (of the father) the killing set in motion and find ways to trace the transformation over a period of years in the language of gestures, human, silent and concrete. One must dwell in the darkness of the sitting room that’ll haunt the narrator, his horror and shame untold, as he walks the roads of the city on which Sameer once walked and played.
The artist, unable to tolerate reality, forgets long and forgets strong. The mind with its uncanny mechanisms, buries the bad memory under consciousness, until a familiar color or caress, a smell or a tone calls it all back again, unwarranted, and in the febrile beehive of imagination, the bright buzzing bits of memory curl into the shape of the novel. Hamilton does not forget enough what he has witnessed recently and literally. It is the memory itself that is so visceral and brutal and excessive that, in its ethereal rendering, he succeeds to shock and harangue, creating a vivid illusion of fiction.