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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Tales of Encounter

by
Yusuf Idris


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Tales of Encounter



Title: Tales of Encounter
Author: Yusuf Idris
Genre: Novellas
Written: 1958/1959/1980 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 207 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Tales of Encounter - US
Tales of Encounter - UK
Tales of Encounter - Canada
Tales of Encounter - India
  • Three Egyptian Novellas:
    • Madam Vienna (1959) السيدة فيينا
    • New York 80 (1980) نيويورك 80
    • The Secret of his Power (1958) سره الباتع
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Rasheed El-Enany

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Our Assessment:

B : intriguing set of stories of cross-cultural encounters

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Tales of Encounter collects three novellas or long (60-70 page) short stories by Yusuf Idris, two from the late 1950s and one written two decades later -- though it is two of the separated tales, 'Madam Vienna' and 'New York 80', that are particularly well-paired (as Idris apparently thought, too, re-publishing 'Madam Vienna' in the same volume 'New York 80' was first published in).
       'Madam Vienna' closely follows an Egyptian visiting Vienna and on the make. The protagonists name is Mustafa -- "or Darsh, as we used to call him", as the opening line has it, introducing the odd omniscient presence that describes Darsh's Viennese adventures without ever really explaining who the 'we' behind it might be. (It seems entirely unnecessary -- and needlessly confusing -- to bring in this 'we'; the past tense ("used to call him" -- suggesting either 'they' don't call him that any longer, or that he's no longer around to be called anything, even as he is consistently and constantly referred to as Darsh throughout the narrative) also adds a puzzle to the story that isn't really needed.) Married and with a young child back home, Darsh is nevertheless a real ladies' man, and after a long business trip has one remaining ambition abroad: to seduce a European woman.
       Quite honestly, Darsh's prowling efforts in a Viennese square and then beyond seem pretty creepy seen in a contemporary light, and the fact that the story is over fifty years old can't lessen that impact entirely. His shadowing and stalking -- and his jealous observations of the ease with which young American sailors pick up the local gals, who flock to them -- make for some illuminating cross-cultural commentary, but these odd dances between men and women feel no less contrived than the ones found in older Western tales of encounters with seductive locals in the exotic Orient. (But, yes, he too wonders what sailors are doing in Vienna.)
       Darsh meets with success, too, as he sets his sights on his target and locks onto her. She plays along too, though not entirely obviously so (though she later reveals what was going through her mind, revealing that she was also playing some games), and he actually winds up back at her place. With two young children in the apartment, this isn't the ideal set up (and ratchets up the creepiness factor further), but Idris makes the most of the awkwardness of the encounter. If the premise and follow-through are cringe-worthy, the way Idris unfolds and presents the story is nevertheless quite accomplished.
       As far as nutty premises and wildly imagined cross-cultural encounters go, 'New York 80' is hard to top. A woman sits down next to a foreigner in a New York establishment; he thinks he knows what she is, but before he can even ask she clears things up:

     Yes, yes. To save your time and mine. I'm a call girl -- do you know what that means ? To save even more time, I'm what people call a prostitute.
       The man is stunned by her brazen approach and attitude -- sure, this is New York, but still ... -- and repelled by it as well. She, however, won't readily take no for an answer, and so they debate about prostitution and sex. Among other things, he's flummoxed by the fact that he's obviously talking to a "highly intelligent woman", completely at odds with his experience of this kind of professional back home in Egypt (and, yes, he's had some experience with these kinds of women).
       Much of 'New York 80' is presented in dialogue -- between 'He' and 'She' -- and also includes what is labeled 'internal monologue' and other thoughts voiced only in his head (labeled 'to himself'), though there are also descriptive passages (though all focused on his perspective, reactions, and memories). It's formally quite impressive -- and effective in part also because the dialogue sounds so entirely artificial, like an eighteenth century philosopher's dialogue (except, of course, that Idris is dealing with twentieth century sexual and societal mores).
       Things get even stranger as she continues to hound him -- and diagnose him: he has a "serious hangup", she says, suggesting:
You are the product of your mother, your father, your family, and your society. And the arrest of your emotional growth.
       She pursues him rather relentlessly -- even coming to his room and pretending to be the hotel night manager to gain entrance -- and, knowing New York's criminal reputation, the man begins to wonder whether this isn't some elaborate assassination plot (begging the question, he realizes, of why anyone would want to kill him). In fact, the prostitute turns out to be something more than she first claimed -- not that that makes the man any more comfortable with her continued pursuit.
       He sees her as: "his opposite. His anti-person". Certainly, this direct confrontation threatens to obliterate his entire identity. Yet she -- who throws the existential: "I make love, therefore I am" into his face -- is ultimately similarly challenged to the core by his unwillingness to play her game.
       She suggests:
A love story used to span an entire novel. And a novel used to span a whole lifetime. Love stories have grown shorter. As short as six months in the novels of Françoise Sagan. For me, the longest takes one night.
       It's a fascinating attempt at considering relations between the sexes -- especially as far as sex goes -- though Idris' somewhat hamfisted use of the foreign -- from cartoonish New York to his unlikely leading lady -- makes it slightly harder to take seriously. Still, there's good strange drama here, and hints of interesting social and cultural differences -- not so much in the dialogues themselves, which must strike contemporary American readers as way over the top -- but in the vision behind this scenario.
       The final story in this collection, 'The Secret of his Power', changes gears so far that it feels entirely anticlimactic. It too deals with encountering the foreign, but sex isn't nearly as central to it and after the first two stories comes, in that way, as something of a letdown. It's too bad -- it's a solid piece, describing a boy and then man fascinated by the mystery of the shrine(s) to Sultan Hamid -- a more widespread mystery than he first realized, as: "almost every village in our part of the country had its own Sultan Hamid" --:
A private sultan with a private maqam. A sultan that no one knew how he came to be buried there, nor who built him the maqam. A sultan descended from outer space that they woke one morning to find his maqam standing at the edge of their cemetery, and his memory cherished in their hearts.
       Alas, readers hopes -- raised after his wild depictions of easy women and Western cities -- that Idris will actually bring extraterrestrials into play are dashed; still, even with its more conventional explanation it's a fine tale.
       With its creative use of form and voice -- the last tale turns epistolary, for example -- and direct approach to cultural encounters, especially at the most intimate level, Tales of Encounter is an always interesting collection. That said, it's hard to say that it is good; between the translation and Idris' fanciful (if not downright bizarre) premises and how he lets these unfold, these stories tend to trip up too often. There's talent at work here -- some of the scenes and exchanges impress -- but even where it's sustained over longer periods here, it's undermined -- at least in the first two stories -- by the really creepy action.
       Interesting and worthwhile as 'tales of encounter' -- of a certain period, and coming from a certain culture -- but somewhat hard to take from a contemporary perspective.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 January 2013

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Links:

Tales of Encounter: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Yusuf Idris (يوسف إدريس) lived 1927 to 1991.

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© 2013 the complete review

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