Lion that eats my mind now for a decade knowing only your hunger
Not the bliss of your satisfaction O roar of the Universe how am I chosen
In this life I have heard your promise I am ready to die I have served
Your starved and ancient Presence O Lord I wait in my room at your Mercy.
– Allen Ginsberg, The Lion for Real
A lion stalks the pages of Youssef Rakha’s intense, compelling novel, The Crocodiles. The fabled beast appears at the outset, waiting in Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg’s living room in the opening stanza of his magnificent poem, “The Lion for Real”, and wanders, in and out of the novel – a prose poem of simmering power – as it unwinds itself across 405 numbered paragraphs, tracing a torturous path from the first stirrings of poetic assurance within a trio of young men in the 1990s to the doomed protests of the Arab Spring.
As revolutionary fervor sweeps the the streets of Cairo in the first months of 2012, this ingenious work imagines an attempt to document the events that transformed the lives of the narrator and his two close friends, Paulo and Nayf, between 1997 and 2001 – more specifically, the years delineating the creation and eventual dissolution of The Crocodiles Group for Secret Poetry. The driving motivation is a desire to make sense of the forces that bound and ultimately destroyed the group, an attempt to place this “premature” endeavour within the broader context of the artistic and political currents of the Egyptian counterculture of the day, and draw connections, if any, to the events presently erupting in the streets. Obsessed with an apparent intersection of incidents and individuals, real and illusory, our narrator, the self-styled chronicler, now nearing 40, is intent on pulling together his recollections, to put ghosts to rest while, if possible, tapping into the emotional void he now carries inside.
His account begins with a startling image that has, over time, taken on mythological importance in his mind. As his poetic cohort, Nayf, celebrates his 21st birthday, just hours before birth of The Crocodiles is announced on June 20,1997; Radwa Adel, a poet and activist from an earlier generation, jumps to her death from the balcony of relative’s Cairo apartment. As the series of reflective paragraphs unfold, she and her life become a refrain, one of the pivot points around which the narrative turns, as it loops back and forth, weaving and winding its way through a tale of the disintegration of youthful intellectual ideals against a backdrop of sex, drugs, ill-fated love affairs, and translations and re-translations of the poets of the Beat Generation. At the heart of this relentlessly reflective exercise is the question of the power of literature to grasp at some truth, and its value, if any, in a world of in the throes of political upheaval.
In the years leading up to the official announcement of The Crocodiles Group, the core members are charged with reckless youthful enthusiasms. The fair-skinned photographer Paulo falls hopelessly in love with a manipulative married woman, handsome Nayf becomes enamoured with the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, and the narrator, known to his fellow Crocodiles by the appellation Gear Knob, is, if less ambitious in some ways, most dedicated to the spirit of Secret Poetry, and, as such, “most capable of following what was happening.”
Through the shifting lens of memory, infused with a bitter nostalgia, the narrator-poet, gathers his recollections, picking up threads with the benefit of hindsight or, as he describes it, his “hypothetical vantage point” – that perspective from which lines of confluence, elements of cause and effect, appear to crystallize. Looking back, he outlines probable connections but, rather than following them methodically from point A to point B, he brings up images, speculates, alludes to incidents and events, continually circling back in time to orchestrate a contextual panorama rich with writers, lovers, and friends. The fragmentary nature of the narrative creates a dreamy effect that can catch the reader off guard with moments of dark sensual ferocity and a tension that builds with increasing allusions to the event that will finally shatter the Crocodiles forever. And throughout it all, that lion – allegorical, symbolic and, in the end hauntingly, devastatingly real – is a persistent presence.
“It seems to me now – from my hypothetical vantage point in a future that dangled before us, unperceived, up until 2011 – that the lion was the supreme secret: the lion that appeared to Nayf. With a clarity unavailable at the time, it seems to me that its appearance was not the only mythical event to have occurred. And though it was for sure the only clearly supernatural event, I myself never for an instant doubted the reality of the lion. Just that, with distance, I’ve become convinced that it was not the only strange thing. Ghosts crouched atop our destinies all the while. At times they took the form of an idea or incident, just like the poem that comes from its author knows not where: vapors, risen from a vast number of life’s liquids mixed all together without rhyme or reason, and distilled into one rich drop.”
The Crocodiles is an exhortation on the power and legacy of words, the fragile volubility of meaning. As an extended prose poem it builds on repeated images, themes and refrains to create a rhythm and energy that is sustained and steadily heightened as it makes its way to an anguished, passionate close. Cairo – contemporary and vital, mystical and violent – comes alive on these pages even as a lion, the lion as revolution, roars in the streets. This a rewarding, remarkable read.
And, from my own western “hypothetical vantage point”, as Egyptian poets, writers and journalists increasingly fall under censorship, serious threat, charges and imprisonment, this novel seems ever more timely than when it was first published close on the heels of the Arab Spring. I can’t help wondering where the lion is, that is, the lion as God.
Youssef Rakha is a novelist, reporter, poet and photographer living in Cairo. He curates a website The Sultan’s Seal which features writing in both Arabic and English, along with photographic features. The Crocodiles is translated by Robin Moger and published by Seven Stories Press.