A great many expat journalists in exotic places will recognize something of their own lives, not to mention their own selves, in Rowan Somerville’s first novel “The End of Sleep.
The central character is an Irishman named Fin, who arrived in Cairo a few years back with a white linen suit and pretensions to journalistic greatness.
Having obtained a job on a very minor English-language newspaper, he then began to drift, to drink and to lose all interest in his original mission.
By the time the readers catch up with him in chapter one, the only subject he has any enthusiasm for writing about is food, specifically kebabs.
Fin’s sacking from the newspaper after a drink-fuelled incident downtown leaves him dangling in a professional and existential void. This he attempts to fill by catching up with a rather annoying acquaintance named Farouk, who leads him on a wild goose chase involving buried treasure, confused identities, abduction and a rather nasty dip in the Nile.
His motivation for acquiescing in this goose chase forms a central theme.
Held in a vice-like fear that his life has no particular meaning, and that he has no particular worth, he becomes obsessed with obtaining a scoop, the story of buried treasure that will renew his sense of professional purpose and make his boss sorry for letting him go.
While the tale reads something like a fast-paced detective novel, Somerville’s style is suffused with dry wit and peppered with humorous analogies. His humor is aided by the color and contradictions of the setting, Cairo, with its manic taxi drivers, ramshackle construction and the tendency of passersby to lend their services in the resolution of disagreements between strangers.
Somerville’s depiction of the city is largely by means of caricature, and some natives of Cairo may find this a little tiresome. But it is also clear that the author has a great affection for the place, as exemplified by his reverent depiction of the Ibn Tuloun mosque, which Fin stumbles across one night in a moment of dire need.
Fin loves the mosque “for its extraordinary shape and its antiquity, for the 20,000 city faithful who had worshipped under its roof in the 9th century, for the legend of the lion with blue eyes kept by Ibn Tuloun’s son as he passed the days floating on a cork mattress in an artificial lake filled with mercury, for the great Ottoman emir who had ridden his horse up the spiral stairs and leapt off the summit into paradise.
Among the most prominent caricatures is that of Farouk, a resident of a village on the outskirts of Cairo, who lives in a world of absolutes, certain of his rightness on every subject under the sun.
While his arguments have the merit of sublime linguistic skill, peppered as they are with apt proverbs; a great many of his beliefs strike the skeptical Fin as contradictory to the point of absurdity.
From time to time, Fin’s frustration boils over, such as when he challenges Farouk over the practice of sacrificing rabbits in order to cure the “evil eye that has cursed his car, a practice that Farouk claims is wholly in accordance with his Muslim faith.
On another occasion, Farouk asserts that the only wood suitable for the cooking of aubergines is that of the olive tree. When Fin suggests that oak might also be nice, Farouk states that if Allah had wanted aubergines to be cooked on oak, he would have populated the desert with oak trees, which he clearly didn’t. Discussion over.
While such spats are humorous in themselves, they are also a vehicle for illustrating the cultural and interpersonal frustrations of a European abroad.
And while Egyptian readers may find such illustrations as tiring (and possibly insulting) as the caricatures of the city itself, they no doubt spring from the author’s experience as a foreign resident.
As Fin attempts to nail down the facts of his elusive scoop, Farouk evades his questions with seemingly irrelevant side-stories and endless nuggets of advice on everything from the importance of marriage to cooking to piety.
And as Fin’s frustrations mount, we begin to wonder whether there is indeed any treasure buried beneath the desert sands.
Be prepared to stay up late into the night in search of the truth, because this book is a page-turner.
“The End of Sleep by Rowan Somerville, published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, is available at Diwan for LE 143.