Rowan Somerville: The End Of Sleep
The mere mention of Cairo conjures up a collage of images to me – of an aged city caught in the shadow of the Pyramids; of a twisted network of alleyways surrounded by a desert expanse; of bazaars, camels, and kebabs. It’s stereotypical and unrepresentative of the city as a whole, but having never had the pleasure I’m sure I’m not alone in imagining this far off place as a city of history, mystery, and wonder.
It is thanks, then, to Rowan Somerville and his debut novel, The End Of Sleep (2008), that the tourist board of Cairo can sing Allah be praised, even if the book does revolve around the story of a skinhead and feature gangsters. And that’s not even bothering to mention the alchoholic Irishman – okay, no more stereotypes! – as its protagonist.
Said Irishman is Fin, the senior reporter on the Cairo Herald, the second-largest English language newspaper in Egypt. Although he has been there for three years, his position isn’t all that important – there are no junior reporters – and the job has never really delivered upon his expectations:
He’d hoped there would be meetings in the shadowy corners of souks. He’d hoped there would be smoking of hand-rolled oval cigarettes and the wearing of crumpled linen suits. He’d hoped there would be the tapping out of stories-that-mattered on shiny black typewriters late into the night. He was always typing in these fantasies. Typing, wearing linen suits and smoking. Not that he owned a typewriter, or even smoked cigarettes.
Now, having fallen somewhat to the bottle these last six months, Fin has found himself out of a job for fighting in a bar and has little left in life – scant money, no family, and the dawning realisation that life is not “the glorious movie of his imagination.” So when he hears his friend Farouk mention the story of Skinhead Saïd and what he found in his basement, it seems like the perfect story to kickstart his life, especially when there may be trinkets and treasures involved.
Farouk’s take on storytelling is different to that of Fin, highlighting the differences between the two men’s cultures, and Somerville slips the slightest hint of metafiction in:
Things were too slow, already too slow. He was a sophisticated Westerner, he reminded himself. His life should be a pacy linear narrative with obvious and satisfying climaxes.
The End Of Sleep does start slow and, the odd comic scene aside, lets its story build up gradually, intermingling the serious nature of life in Cairo with more madcap escapades. And it’s to this end that Somerville’s tale echoes the style of his character, Farouk, whose culture of storytelling is informed by the journey rather than the revelation:
Farouk was not one to be led along linear narrative lines, or led at all. He would reveal details randomly, the way fragments of antiquity might appear over time, scattered over a vast area, tantalising generations of archaeologists.
What’s most striking about The End Of Sleep is not the story but the sheer indulgence in Cairene culture. While Fin leads the story, the city is certainly more loveable, and Somerville writes with a desire to show beyond standard postcard snapshots, whether it be in the hub:
Cairo was on the surface a city of filth, chaos and ruins. But to those who were able to sink into it, Cairo was al-Kahira – the Triumphant, teeming with people, ebullient, enveloped in the past, kinetic, yielding, collapsing and constantly rebuilding itself out of the debris. With its alleyways and courtyards, its ruins built on ruins, Cairo was a city of nooks and passages, a place which seemed to promise the possibility, perhaps even deliverance, would be waitinground the next corner.
Or taking a step back and enjoying the old with the new:
Even in landscape Cairo was not dominated by pyramids but by the curved domes and minarets of the city’s mosques, which rose in spirals, tapers, smooth curves and perfect octagons and were sandwiched between garish advertising hoardings and high-rises of cracking concrete.
And no culture would be complete without a mention of its food, and Somerville, like Fin, obviously knows that of Cairo, for the novel is a palimpsest of flavours and spices, with regular mentions of olive-wood smoked baba ganoush, succulent wads of warm pitta and kebabs (“spicy, luscious, tender and suffused with thyme”) that one taste would demand a halal-lujah! It’s certainly a far cry from the tourist tea (“a chipped teacup and a dusty tea bag floating in a bath of warm water”) offered near the beginning.
While it’s conclusion is not earth-shattering, The End Of Sleep owes much to the Arabic culture it’s steeped in, preferring to linger more on the journey, and its arabesque narrative, lazily meandering through the day, soon takes control holds on through a crazy, if sometimes conveniently plotted, day-in-the-life story peopled with larger-than-life characters, and like a certain taxi driver (‘You should visit Alexandria, the most beautiful beaches in the world. I will take you there now.’) shows off the best and worst of a city with obvious admiration.
July 10, 2008