Book of the week
THE CITY ALWAYS WINS OMAR ROBERT HAMILTON FABER, $33
The novel has often been delayed news. In 1722, Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year attempted to report the horrors of the bubonic plague striking London. Charles Dickens revealed the brutality of industrial England. In the 20th century, “non-fiction novels” such as Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood put their readers in the minds of real-life killers.
Omar Robert Hamilton has taken on the city of Cairo and the events of the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2012 in a rebellious debut novel. It relates the events in three sections – “Tomorrow”, “Today” and “Yesterday”. The first section opens with the aftermath of a massacre of 29 Coptic Christians in the suburb of Maspero on October 9, 2011.
Hamilton’s prose has an urgency and a propulsive push as his crowded scenario unravels. It is an interrupted novel, focusing on Khalid, an Egyptian/palestinian/ American film-maker; Miriam, his activist Egyptian girlfriend; and their friends and colleagues at Chaos, a guerrilla media collective created to document the times in which they live.
The City Always Wins uses many devices, from tweets to headlines, to punctuate its narrative. It is a book where the power of events is juxtaposed with visionary perspectives of the city of Cairo itself. There are sequences of fine scenic description and breath-taking city-views.
It is a filmic novel, always filled with a documentary feel for the action it records. The jagged structure and style recall the hand-held camera work of front-line journalism. Moments of beauty and meditation exist in the midst of riot.
The novel’s evocation of an urban environment on the edge of anarchy is vivid. Sexual violence threatens. Hamilton’s Egypt is often close-up and passionate. Jump-cut instants fragment and briefly cohere before being lost again. Miriam and Khalid’s personal life is irreparably changed by the greater forces that surround them.
Hamilton is the son of a British poet, Ian Hamilton, and an Egyptian writer, Ahdaf Soueif. His heritage seems very much a part of his novel. Living in Egypt during the Arab Spring, he was also a member of the Mosireen Collective, a group whose activities were very similar to the fictitious Chaos Cairo.
The City Always Wins is an urgent and unsettling journey. The contrast between idealism and the sharp brutality of a political revolution is made amply clear, while the lives of its characters are paired with the relentlessness of public events. It is a book of considered thought about the nature of contemporary political action.