Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Papa Sartre

Ali Bader

general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Papa Sartre

Title: Papa Sartre
Author: Ali Bader
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 178 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Papa Sartre - US
Papa Sartre - UK
Papa Sartre - Canada
  • Arabic title: بابا سارتر
  • Translated by Aida Bamia

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B : tries to be a bit too clever for its own good, but quite appealing

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Papa Sartre is a three-part novel, the bulk of it the ninety-one chapters of a biography of Abd al-Rahman, an Iraqi flâneur who studied in Paris in the late 1950s and on his return to Baghdad preached and practiced his own distinctive kind of existentialism, to great acclaim. The bookend parts to this section are narrated by his biographer, describing getting this particular commission, and then what happens as he is completing it.
       Desperate for money, the biographer gladly accepts this assignment -- though from the opening sentence of his account he emphasizes the depravity of those who hire him. He's also a bit confused about what they actually want from him, as when he's told:

"You must know that truth and bogus facts are not necessarily a contradiction in your kind of work. Anyway, you're not being paid to write a true story."
     "Write whatever you want, and make this donkey greater than Sartre himself. I couldn't care less. You and I can decide on the important details of his life," said Hanna.
     Nunnu clarified, "When you reach the conclusion you will understand."
       The biographer gamely tackles the task, but it's not easy finding the facts; instead, he's confronted with the unrealistic high regard the philosopher is still held in:
They'd say, "He is the Sartre of the Arab World, and Sartre sent him to save the nation and put an end to the life of banditry brought about by the fifties. His life was complete and pure, a model of greatness and beauty, because he did not begin it, as others did, with serious weaknesses."
       The truth is a bit different, as is revealed in the biographical section the writer puts together. Abd al-Rahman did go to Paris, pursuing a doctorate in existential philosophy but failing to get his degree; he returned to Iraq with a French wife whom he passed off as Sartre's cousin -- and venerating the philosophical master -- "the god of knowledge, Sartre" (even hanging a picture of the Frenchman on his bedroom wall). He glimpsed the famous man while he was in Paris, but never had the courage to approach him; in Baghdad, of course, his reputation is a different one, as everyone thinks he was practically Sartre's drinking buddy.
       For Abd al-Rahman, it was all about existentialism and nausea -- though given his understanding of these it's not difficult to see why he failed to get his degree:
     Abd al-Rahman's existentialism was earthy, organized, and spontaneous. It led to the perfection of the self, not its degradation, to the elevation of the soul, not its destruction. Existentialism provided him with the best in life, a wonderful time, unique moments, and total and complete pleasures. His might be described as a lustful existentialism, whose nausea engendered life, not death and suicide. It led to heavy and delicious meals, crazy nights of drinking, and pulling his mistress's hair while removing her lace panties. It inspired him to cheer and shout like common people.
       Whatever it was, it made an impression, as his ideas (and lifestyle) were embraced by the Iraqi intellectuals of the 1960s:
He brought them an authentic philosophy, not a false one, a unique philosophy that was not a mere copy of French existentialism, or a passive artificial interpretation, but a creative Arabic interpretation of it. This all happened thanks to Abd al-Rahman's constructive efforts in formulating and establishing his philosophy and his pushing it onto a path that its founder, M. Jean-Paul Sartre, would never have thought possible.
       No kidding.
       The biographical section progressively reveals more about Abd al-Rahman's background, from his marriage to his experiences (and frustrations) in Paris (where he already lived a very ... existential life) and finally his childhood, shedding more light on the would-be philosopher and his later success (grounded in so many earlier failures).
       Holding court in Baghdad, Abd al-Rahman had many admirers and followers. One acolyte was Ismail Hadoub, a simple fellow who was baffled by intellectuals but found a lot that appealed to him in Abd al-Rahman's lifestyle:
Abd al-Rahman's philosophy was more attractive because existentialism was clearer than Marxism. For example, whenever Abd al-Rahman said "nihilism" it meant that he wanted to get drunk, and whenever he said "freedom" he was planning on sleeping with a woman, an "commitment" meant an appointment at a bar or nightclub. This is how Ismail explained Abd al-Rahman's philosophy to one of his new friends at the Coronet bookstore.
       But Ismail takes these lessons too much to heart, and cuckolds Abd al-Rahman -- leading to the final existential mystery surrounding Abd al-Rahman: his death. Was it murder ? was it suicide ?
       The biographer creeps back into the narrative near the end of his account of Abd al-Rahman, and then has to deal with how those that commissioned the text take it, which adds a few more layers of mystery (and clarifies a bit, too) about the facts (and figures) surrounding Abd al-Rahman.
       Ali Bader gets a lot of mileage out of Abd al-Rahman's brand of existentialism; most of this is good fun, but after a while the point has been made often enough. Many parts of the biographical section are quite strong, but with its ninety-one pieces it remains a bit fragmented; the order in which information is presented also gives it less of a feel of biography, while the focus also doesn't always seem in the right place. The biographer's mystery (in particular the question of what those commissioning the work want from him) that frames his life-account of Abd al-Rahman is intriguing, but could also have used a bit more to-the-point clarity. It all adds up reasonably well, but feels a bit jumbled in its presentation.
       With its slice-of-life depictions of (Arabic) student life in Paris in the 1950s and pseudo-intellectual Baghdad life in the 1960s, and its hints of contemporary Iraqi life at the turn of the millennium (the novel was published in 2001, with Saddam Hussein still firmly in power), Papa Sartre offers quite a bit that is of interest. The philosophical angle -- and the way Sartre's existentialism is adapted for Iraqi consumption -- works well (and amusingly), but the structure of the novel creaks a bit too much. Still, it's certainly of interest.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 October 2009

- Return to top of the page -


Papa Sartre: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Iraqi author Ali Bader (Ali Badr, علي بدر‎) was born in 1964.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2009 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links