Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Over the Bridge

Muhammad al-Bisatie's creative vision is on full display in this compact narrative, Over the Bridge (American University in Cairo Press, 2006) that blurs the line between reality and dream worlds. It begins with an Egyptian bureaucrat who, in a scheme to fatten his meager take-home pay, exploits his position in the notoriously chaotic government and "invents" on paper a complete small city in Upper Egypt. And as a proper "city," al-Khalidya has govermnet officials who need to be paid. When the checks for al-Khalidya are issued, he cashes them himself.

Yet what begins as a quiet fraud evolves into the protagonist's continuing descent into quasi-madness. He becomes obssessed with his new creation, the village, and builds a model of it. He begins to imagine the lives of its inhabitants, and the structural violence of city life comes into sharper relief the more he imagines. He becomes a kind of godplayer.

He turned out the light in the room and lay down on the bed,the model twinkling atop the desk. Feeling pleased, he rested his head on his bent arm.
El-Bisatie's technique also becomes somewhat blurry as the narrative proceeds, and as a reader we are sometimes confused about the setting or happenings: is it in the bureaucrat's real world or his make-believe, or is it both at the same time? Are his waking actions more viable or real than his dream world actions, and how can we tell them apart? Echoes of Borges and Garcia Marquez give this novel its sense of magic realism and wonder.

While the plot becomes a little less interesting as it goes on, we come to understand the very existence of a village in Upper Egypt doesn't matter very much to those beyond its inhabitants, least of all to the Egyptian bureaucracy. And thus the novel can be read as a kind of disturbing allegory.