Boyd Tonkin: An Arabic bridge from then to now

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Last week the prolific Lebanese novelist Rabee Jaber won the fifth International Prize for Arabic Fiction – the "Arabic Booker" – for his latest work, The Druze of Belgrade. Apparently shy and taciturn on the podium in Abu Dhabi, he had plenty to say when I talked to him on the morning after his victory, before he swiftly left the emirate to resume his ultra-productive routine: "For me, the most important thing for a writer is to write. It's better for him not to speak too much." Still, I'm glad that he did – about, among other literary topics, Wolf Hall. "It's set in the past, but is it historical fiction?" Jaber asks. For him – a writer whose own excursions into fictional history include a trilogy inspired by Beirut and the IPAF-shortlisted America, about early 20th-century Syrian immigrants to the US – the novel of historical events must always contain and interpret the present: "I think of time as continuous. The past is not the past. The future is not the future. All is now."

As he spoke, in the business suite of one of those hi-tech Abu Dhabi hotels where it can feel as if the Gulf's sudden leap from past to future has entirely bypassed the present, I remembered an interview with Hilary Mantel herself the morning after she won the Man Booker for Wolf Hall. Mantel reminded me that she once lived in Saudi Arabia (see her Eight Months on Ghazzah Street) and said that the experience helped her understand life at the Tudor court. Without any need for heavy-handed allegory or simple-minded parable, the novelist of quality can bring a remote era into invigorating dialogue with the minds and the worlds of now.

The Druze of Belgrade is set after the Lebanese civil war of 1860, when the Ottoman rulers exiled Druze rebels to the furthest Balkan corners of their empire. In the novel, a hapless Christian egg-seller becomes caught up in their expulsion and imprisonment. "It was a very good theatre in which to play out the tragedy of what happens to ordinary people in times of unrest," the author says. As for the unchanging realities of power, he refers to the despotic late 18th-century ruler of Acre and Beirut, Ahmed al-Jazzar, "the Butcher" – a cruel tyrant whose regional heirs are all too easy to identify.

Inevitably, at the IPAF award, journalists asked the judges whether the submitted novels reflected the "Arab Spring". That's seldom how worthwhile fiction works. When I try my own clumsy version of the enquiry on Jaber, he brushes it away as a "media question". All the same, the mirror of history has often allowed major Arabic novelists to examine their own societies. In Egypt, Naguib Mahfouz didn't abandon his critique of contemporary power when he set stories among the Pharaohs. Gamal el-Ghitani's 1974 novel Zayni Barakat, with its regime-changing upheavals in 16th-century Cairo, has as much to say about the Egypt of today as in the era of its publication. If, as Jaber puts it, "Troubled times are not bad for literature", then surely stories from one moment of mayhem can reverberate in others.

Both "Arabic Booker" winners so far available in English translation excavate the past to illuminate timeless passions and puzzles. Bahaa Taher's Sunset Oasis mounts a Forsterian clash of motives and ideals in the occupied Egypt of the late 19th century, while Youssef Ziedan's Azazeel – published by Atlantic this month – takes fifth-century quarrels in the Coptic church as the ground for an ambitious investigation into good and evil, faith and doubt.

I shall look forward to Jaber joining the too-select company of leading Arabic voices with an English-language presence. Among Arab critics, he has a towering reputation as a story-teller, and in conversation he lays most stress not on grand ideas in fiction but on the adventures of the protagonist: "You take a character, and you see what happens to him." He even quotes Harold Pinter: "Put two people in a room, and you've got a play." In Ottoman Beirut or Tudor London, human drama can span the chasm between centuries and cultures. And, for those story-tellers whose work endures, even between life and death. Shakespeare, says Jaber, "is more alive than any of us".

Super-Mario's farewell to art?

Slightly alarming news: Mario Vargas Llosa, Peruvian superstar and Nobel literature laureate, plans to donate his personal library of 30,000 books to his home town of Arequipo. I do hope that this doesn't count as some sort of pre-retirement, chuck-it-all-in gesture. Vargas Llosa's fiction has always moved in giant strides across histories, cultures and ideas – not least in his new novel The Dream of the Celt, about the Irish hero-traitor Roger Casement (due here in June). He feeds on other stories. Without easy access to such precious sources, will Vargas Llosa want to write on such a broad canvas again? Or has he stashed the lot on a Kindle already?

Equality comes off the shelf

Another week, another judge-flung thunderbolt aimed at local authority library cuts. Mr Justice Wilkie has ruled that Surrey County Council's proposal to make 10 of its 52 branches entirely volunteer-run is unlawful, although he has not as yet forbidden the plan. A clarifying judgment is due in May. Once more, library campaigners – in this instance SLAM, the Surrey Libraries Action Movement – have enlisted the stalwart services of Birmingham-based Public Interest Lawyers and prevailed in a High Court judicial review. And, once more, the successful challenge has not depended on the often-invoked Public Libraries and Museums Act of 1964. In the Surrey case, it was again the 2010 Equality Act – with its stipulation that public services should be equally accessible for all – that clinched the protestors' legal argument. This swansong of the Labour government only completed its parliamentary progress in April 2010. It has since turned into rough music for Coalition ears.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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