Instead of page numbers, “The Crocodiles,” a novel by the Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha, is marked by 405 numbered, block paragraphs, the whole symmetrically framed by references to Allen Ginsberg, the US Beat poet, to his “The Lion for Real,” signed “Paris, March, 1958.”
Opening Rakha’s book, one finds a hand drawn map labeled “The Crocodiles’ Cairo,” which includes a drawing of the head of a lion, which might somewhat resemble, in caricature, the photo portrait of Youssef Rakha that appears on the inside back cover of the book, at least the seemingly ironic smile of both suggests they know something one or the other or the reader may not.
Napoleon’s March to Moscow, 1812: Description. Lineal novel. Variables. How to tell the story? What happened along the way, and back? They were marching through snow, in below freezing temperatures, and you want to know the exact temperature at daily geographical interval locations? Body counts alone won’t tell the story. How to present data and information? Multivariate analysis in a single photograph. How to revision history? On the way back, there were no ramparts, just fields of snow and a sea of time. Napoleon may well have dreamed of warmer days, when he lived in Egypt, of unlocking a language, and of a code that would provide protection for all against the cold. A wise leader rules with allowances, and instead of burning books, gets everyone reading.
In Astra Taylor’s “Examined Life,” Michael Hardt sets out in a rowboat in a privileged pond to argue the meaning of revolution. What does it mean to make revolution? What is the relationship between freezing temperatures, direction, and a line of march that grows thinner with each step each man takes? “Carte Figurative.” Data flow, “one ruling elite replaced with another” (Hardt), credits and discredits following, merits and demerits, kudos and kicks upside the head. Note: Hardt rows backwards – he can’t see where he’s going – at one point “…running aground, shipwrecked.” Figurative language, the hyperbole of revolution.
“Carte Figurative.” Figurative language. Not to be taken literally. And don’t confuse Minard the author (cartographer) with Napoleon the character. Regression analysis becomes necessary. What is the relationship between the author and the narrator? Perhaps none, except that one sees what the other does not. Irony. “The Crocodiles” is a figurative map of multiple variables that attempts a regression analysis to explain past events and predict future probabilities. Note that Rakha is also journalist and photographer; each paragraph of the novel may be taken as a still photograph, a variable, part of a portfolio.
“On the Road” with Kerouac (para. 248) and Bonaparte. My kingdom for a 1949 Pontiac Chieftain. Interactive notes: what was the cost of a 1949 Hudson new using the value of today’s poem to that of a muscle car driven by a youthful single male in 1964? Sal knew to take a southern route on his winter trip: The novel as map of a trip.
Custom as costume. Napoleon as grammarian, his Code a multivariate blending of revolution, revelation, and reform. The novel as procedure that everyone can follow, the interaction of nouns with verbs. Custom as vernacular, empire as formal attire. Due process as drug.
The Beatnik as attitude, beatitude. Jazz as revolution, the novel of improvisation. Notes out of context. Bonaparte’s men dropping (like) seeds (para. 256). Napoleon as lion.
At times, reading “The Crocodiles” is like watching a foreign film with subtitles, because while all the common characteristics of the novel are included (plot; narration; characters – major, minor, dynamic, static, protagonist, antagonist, foil; dialog – though sparse, and blended with the prose, the paragraphs all block formatted; setting – places, times, seasons, dwellings, streets; diction that creates style; irony, satire, and sarcasm), something strange appears, and that strangeness is what the Crocodiles’ group calls poetry: “self-sufficiency…desire…intention” (para. 316).
Like Minard’s “Carte Figurative” of Napoleon’s march to and from Russia (1812-1813), Rakha’s “The Crocodiles” is a figurative coming of age graphic that plots multiple comings and ages (decades, variables) packed into a single view.
The juxtapositions of disparate subjects and actions (of real Lions with Visions of Lions; of Beats with Crocodiles; of poetry with prose; of people with bridges – para. 80) connote something new, new views: the flower children having dropped their petals now sticks of thorns (“just ask the nearest hippie,” Scalia).
Transparency does not necessarily lead to transcendence. Neither honor nor shame stand alone as values, but they are the crossroads at which people gossip, tell stories, barter and eat and drink.
Affinities, themes, motifs: the Beats, poetry, revolution, change, maturation, growth, body, sex, predicament, society, margins (paragraphing, units of composition, sentences), ambiguity, protest, independence, exploitation, reflection, writing, file, premature, people, obstacles, brain, chemicals, women, work, matrix, publishing, poverty and ignorance, position in group, generations (lost, beat, hippie, next), translation, drugs (real and imagined), neighbors, values, wants, needs, humor, music, violence, aggression, excuses, decadence, pop culture, misinformation, criticism, destruction, suicide, sacrifice, counter-culture, lion (cat), crocodile, logic, argument, howl, pain, Ginsberg (Howl and Moloch), dissolution, analysis, invasiveness, love, ambition, relationships, disdain, synchronicity, human nature, signifiers.
There is something too of the noir to “The Crocodiles,” a mystery, with the narrator, “Gear Knob,” whose nickname suggests some 1950’s hard-boiled detective story character, assuming the role of the detective as corrective if not moral force. But noir is cartoon. Or “The Crocodiles” might have been a graphic novel. Instead, it is a poetic novel that breaks with genre convention and creates formal purpose and revisions value, what people want.
“The Crocodiles,” by Youssef Rakha, 2013. English translation 2014 by Robin Moger, Seven Stories Press, New York, November 2014.
Russell Bennetts, editor extraordinaire (Berfrois, Queen Mob’s Tea House), interviews the Prince of the Toads for his popular series “Poets Online Talking About Coffee.” Head on over for a cup and check it out.
Below: “The Dance Lesson,” 32 x 64, oil paint and oil pastel over acrylic:
You seem to have crossed some divide, a distance between following expectations and surprising the reference books on shelves marked Must Remain in Reference Room: No Check Outs – For Scholars Only!
Those were the days of craves Dizzy and Monk and Bird ears. We never worried ears, blood pressure, what gave rise to touch, an orange scarf, blue waterfall behind bridge.
The nurse walks you to the scale, weighs you, takes yr blood pressure, pulse, and temperature. “The doctor will be with you shortly to hear yr confession,” and she leaves you alone to study the posters of the cross sectioned body pinned to the wall.
The doctor knocks and comes in dressed in stole and stethoscope, just like on TV. “I only handle venial issues. Only a specialist can give absolution. But what good is freedom that leads to wild thoughts?”
Families and individuals. Names called. An ambulance arrives. Para-techs wheel in empty stretcher, disappear into sanctuary. A fire truck appears. Six firemen walk through waiting room like a Rubik’s Cube. Two men in Texas gear waltz across the lobby.
A boy plays with the automatic door. His father. His sister figures it out. A yell and a sigh. A woman crumbles at the nurse’s counter, a Beckett ploy that gets her plenty of attention.
The sign says No Tips. I hand the parking attendant an Ace which he pockets. Good man!
The drive home.
What the Doctor said
She wanted to see my pocket notebook. “I knew you were dizzy as soon as I laid eyes on you sitting out in the lobby taking pictures of the patients, word pictures.”
In the waiting room waiting continues. Kids run around and play games, laughing. A few people look worried. A couple of folks look hurt, or hurting. A father falls asleep.