Watching and Writing in a Surveillance State

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Sudanese author Amir Taj Al-Sir’s novel tells of a former state security agent on a mission to be a novelist. The gazes of the novelist and security agent become blurred in a look at what it is to be a writer in a surveillance state. (Photo: Turkairo)

By: Leah Caldwell

Published Thursday, August 30, 2012

In Amir Taj al-Sir’s novel, The Grub Hunter, we meet Abdullah Farfar, an aspiring novelist.

It’s clear that Farfar isn’t the most likely candidate for vaunted literary status. He is a Sudanese security agent forced into retirement by an injury that left him with a wooden leg. He has never read a novel and the closest he has come to literary circles is reporting their subversive behavior to the government. Yet, in spite of these hindrances, his epiphanic mission in life – whether arising from boredom or delusions of grandeur – is to write a novel.

Farfar goes about this task with the precision of an agent staking out subjects. He settles into his new role of wannabe novelist at a coffee shop that is not coincidentally the home base of the local author A.T. – the exact man that Farfar hopes to mimic in style and rituals. Their first encounter leaves Farfar somewhat humiliated, yet even more determined to prove to the petty literary elite that his eventual novel will surpass their measly works.

Here we have a gullible yet exacting government agent traversing the literary haunts of his city and being met with suspicion and scorn. It would seem that Farfar has been handed the perfect mixture of vendetta and rejection to channel into his own novel, but the former security agent, though obsessive, is naïve and hasn’t yet learned the cynical game of fiction writing.

Originally published in Arabic in 2011, The Grub Hunter’s English translation, by William Maynard Hutchins, will be released in September 2012 as part of the Pearson African Writers Series. Al-Sir was born in 1960 in northern Sudan and published his first novel in 1988. The author has now published 14 novels and lives in Qatar.

Al-Sir is also a gynecologist – perhaps as unexpected a vocation for a novelist as a government agent, even if al-Sir is the nephew of famed Sudanese author Tayyeb Saleh – and, during his travels treating patients, has had experiences with many “ordinary people,” as he told Al-Akhbar in February 2012. When al-Sir goes to write a novel, the people he encounters sometimes “jump into my narratives unconsciously,” helping to deliver his work from the pitfalls of autobiographical fiction into something more “real.” It’s implied that a novelist can only create so many characters from pure imagination until he must steal from real life – a lesson that the novelist A.T. (the same initials as al-Sir) tries to impart on his new pupil Farfar.

A.T.’s main lesson during his and Farfar’s coffee shop sessions is that the novelist must watch his fellow humans diligently since they are the characters of his future novel. Of course, Farfar already has considerable people-watching experience, but just lacks the imagination to turn his security reports into a worthy novel. In their exchanges A.T. examines random strangers in the coffee shop and expounds on their hard lives, passions, and histories. While Farfar is impressed, the reader might be taken aback. The novelist seems too invasive in his method and too powerful in his willingness to impart his reality onto total strangers. It’s almost as unsettling as, say, a security agent composing a dossier for his boss, adding in juicy details for effect and creating his own characters.

David Foster Wallace once described fiction writers as “almost predatory” in the way they watch strangers. “This is because human situations are writers’ food. Fiction writers watch other humans sort of the way gapers slow down for car wrecks: they covet a vision of themselves as witnesses.” In The Grub Hunter, this creepy relationship is made explicit by pairing a novelist and security agent, but ultimately in the novel’s unexpected conclusion, when A.T. solidifies his dominance.

Al-Sir’s novel is both an examination of what it is to be a novelist in a surveillance society as well as a look at the uncomfortable overlay of subversion, art, and authenticity in these all-seeing times. This latter idea is best witnessed in the absurd character al-Mudallik, the struggling actor husband of Farfar’s aunt.

Al-Mudallik is an unpredictable character who goes the extra mile to portray characters “authentically” at the theater – a location frequented by the country’s radicals. Farfar keeps a close eye on al-Mudallik since his eccentricities would make for a perfect character in his novel. When al-Mudallik commits the ultimate non-subversive act during a play’s curtain call by boisterously praising the government, he effectively sabotages the leftist credentials of the director. The aftereffect is al-Mudallik’s comical ascendancy to commercial stardom, as well as a look at the disjunction between commercial success and artistic freedom.

Al-Sir took some risks with The Grub Hunter, but at times, its novel within a novel structure has a matryoshka doll feel. In a work that so adeptly takes the novelist to task for character and plot creation, certain tactics like this feel gimmicky and, in a weird way, make one think of al-Sir’s role less as a novelist and more as a type of puppet master. Though certain literary frauds pass through the coffee shop – including a woman whose good looks earn her a flattering blurb from A.T. – the novelist A.T. comes off as a type of demi-god. It’s curious that the novel, even with its critiques of a frequently shallow literary culture, persists in the myth that, ultimately, the truly great novelists have a certain monopoly on truth.

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