In the third and final section of Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer, the 30-something narrator finds herself having a political conversation with a salesman at a dusty record shop in Cairo. It’s 2014 -- the novel takes place in three parts, the first two set in 1984 and 1998 -- and the two tentatively discuss music, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Egypt’s history of governmental overthrows:
He’s learning that history is repeating itself. We talk about Nasser. The first revolution. 1919. The Wafd revolting against the British. It wasn’t really a revolution, he says. It was a popular uprising. I raise my eyebrows. But it was a revolt, I say. But there wasn’t a change of a system. The country didn’t completely change.
Told in three pivotal summers in the life of a thoughtful Egyptian girl who grows up to become a writer and filmmaker, Chronicle of a Last Summer examines the undercurrents of restlessness and anger that push along political movements like riptides, but also surfaces the same feelings of restlessness and outrage that drive young people around the world out of their skins with desperation to find new, independent adult identities.
The narrator and the salesman pick their way through this semantic debate, neither entirely sure when a revolution is a revolution and when it’s just a changing of the guard: “Does it matter if the people’s movement calling for Morsi’s ouster was quickly propped up by the state?” she asks. “In the end it was the people’s desire, a sincere expression of what they wanted. He tilts his head and thinks for a long time. He isn’t sure. It’s something he feels conflicted about.”
Chronicle of a Last Summer reads as an impressionistic memoir (though of course it’s fiction), a philosophical meditation on the nature of change and stasis, the story of a family fractured by political circumstance. What it isn’t, though, is a political tract, or a manifesto. Readers first find the narrator gazing out at Cairo’s turmoil with the childish curiosity and incomprehension of a 6-year-old. In the final section she’s well into her 30s, but this struggle to put decades of upheaval and political changeover -- from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Anwar Sadat to Hosni Mubarak to Mohamed Morsi to the 2013 coup that left Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in power -- into some logical, black-and-white framework hasn’t grown easier.
In each section, the narrator, who lives mostly alone with her mother in a too-spacious, half-shut-up home in Cairo, stands somewhat apart from the political debates and protests that culminate in changes of power. Her interest is in the human particulars. Her idealistic cousin Dido, whose disappointment over his young relative’s lack of political passion slowly bubbles over. Her mother’s navigation of life alone during her father’s many-year absence. The father who eventually returns, almost unrecognizable in how deeply he’s been changed by his experiences. Her uncle, who refuses to ever look at the closed-off rooms where her grandmother lived until her death:
Each time he came, he would say that he hadn’t been downstairs since Granny died. I would tell him to come, look. He would shake his head, pat my shoulder, look up at the stairs ahead of him, and tell me that it was better this way. Some memories need to be preserved. He didn’t want to write over them with something new.
As El Rashidi’s pensive narrator ages, all of Egypt seems to be at certain risk of being written over. She visits museums and sits by a statue of the pharaoh Akhenaten, writing him aching letters she knows can’t be answered. She looks around her city and sees only the violent riots she’s seen rather than the peaceful walks of past years. Once the new memory is made, she finds, it can’t be unmade to keep your image of a place or person pure.
This tension between the urge toward change -- and indeed, the complete unavoidability of certain changes -- and the grief we feel for lost selves, lost versions of our lives, powers the meditations that fill this novel. Political revolution is just another kind of change, with the force of longing behind it that can’t be denied forever, and with the trailing loss for aspects of what was. At the heart, though, change is more difficult. The narrator struggles to mold herself into her cousin’s ideal of a politically engaged person, but ultimately must accept that she’s not a radical, but an artist: That is her role. A regime change might change the groups that feel oppressed -- the Muslim Brotherhood or secular groups -- but the deeper troubles persist: Egypt hasn’t really been revolutionized merely by virtue of a new leader taking power.
Chronicle of a Last Summer is El Rashidi’s debut novel, but she’s previously written extensively on Egypt’s revolution and culture for New York Review of Books and other outlets, and this digressive, philosophizing book takes advantage of her strengths in observation, psychological and otherwise, and in analyzing the dynamics beneath Egypt’s recent instability. Liberated from a tight plot and from the strictures of a non-fiction approach, she paints a landscape of life growing up in Cairo that feels so vivid and all-consuming that the reader could simply melt into the narrator and be present. Any American reader who’s felt that news stories, like those about Egypt’s 2011 revolution and what’s followed, seem distant and baffling will finish Chronicle of a Last Summer with a new depth of empathy and understanding.
The Bottom Line:
A thought-provoking story of a young writer growing up in Egypt through three summers of unrest, which blends philosophical musings with a vivid distillation of the narrator’s everyday life in Cairo.
What other reviewers think:
Kirkus: "An atmospheric kaleidoscope about survival and the moments that, together, become movements."
Publishers Weekly: "El Rashidi’s family saga twists and turns but ultimately suffers from too much meandering."
Who wrote it?
Chronicle of a Last Summer is Egyptian writer Yasmine El Rashidi’s first novel. She contributes regularly to New York Review of Books and is an editor at Bidoun, a Middle Eastern arts and culture journal.
Who will read it?
Readers who gravitate toward fiction with political and social themes, especially anyone curious about the human impact of the political changes in Egypt over the past few years.
“The house was blistering. Mama had drawn in and closed the wooden shutters hours earlier. Damp towels lay rolled on windowsills. The heat still seeped in. She now sat at one corner of the sofa, gray phone receiver in one hand pressed to her ear, plant mister in the other. She sprayed her face at intervals. Mama always said the heat never bothered her. It was how she was made. That summer had been different.”
“He had been saying all year that it was untenable. La faim. He told me to watch for certain things. The price of tomatoes and okra. If the man carrying the bread on his head as he cycles is whistling or not. If people are watching TV at cafés, or sitting in silence, or debating. If the radio begins to play repeated patriotic songs. Without tomatoes and okra we can’t live, he said. I didn’t like okra but understood. It was prickly on the outside and like slime inside. Deceptive. People consumed it almost daily, scooping it into bread and gulping it down, oblivious to texture. It was the cheapest vegetable. We cooked tomatoes with everything.”
Chronicle of a Last Summer
by Yasmine El Rashidi
Tim Duggan Books, $22.00
Publishes June 28, 2016
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