Book of the week

THE CITY AL­WAYS WINS OMAR ROBERT HAMIL­TON FABER, $33

The Dominion Post - Your Weekend (Dominion Post) - - Books -

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.

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