“I discovered an entirely new side to the fiction, an aspect that had been completely lost”

On the occasion of the publication of A Nose and Three Eyes by Ihsan Abdel Kouddous, a giant of Egyptian literature and culture, AUC Press spoke with translator Jonathan Smolin, the Jane and Raphael Bernstein Professor in Asian Studies at Dartmouth College, and asked him to reflect on the context and process of bringing this monumental work of fiction to English-language readers almost 60 years after it was first published in Arabic.

Could you tell us a bit more about your research of Abdel Kouddous’ life and how it affected your translation of A Nose and Three Eyes?

I began researching the fiction of Ihsan Abdel Kouddous back in 2018. At the time, I started reading his novels and short stories in book form. I then quickly realized that all of his fiction had actually first been serialized in Rose El Youssef, perhaps the most important political-cultural weekly magazine in Egypt during the Nasser era. Ihsan was also the editor-in-chief of the magazine, and he was deeply involved in the political developments of Egypt, both before and after Nasser came to power. I then discovered that, unlike Naguib Mahfouz, Ihsan wrote the weekly installments of his fiction on deadline, typically late on Friday night right before the magazine went to the printer on Saturday morning. This opened up for me an entirely new way to read Ihsan’s fiction.

Once I began reading his work not as books detached from Rose El Youssef but as installments written and published within the context of each issue of the magazine, coming hot off the presses, I discovered an entirely new side to the fiction, an aspect that had been completely lost.

Discovering the clear links between Ihsan’s opening political editorial and the installment of his fiction in each issue showed me how he was using fiction as political dissent through the cover of metaphor and allegory. Indeed, this showed how Ihsan was not only the groundbreaking writer of romantic melodrama which deeply impacted the lives of generations of readers, but he was also perhaps the only writer during the 1950s and early 1960s challenging Nasser and the installment of military dictatorship through the vehicle of popular fiction.

Could you tell us more about the political layer underneath the surface of Abdel Kouddous’ novels? How the three eyes in A Nose and Three Eyes can be understood as metaphors for three different eras in Nasser’s reign?

Ihsan had a long and complex relationship with Nasser. There are periods when they seem to have been very close, with Ihsan serving as a confidant and advisor for Nasser. But there were also times when there was clearly a falling out between the two, with potentially catastrophic consequences for Ihsan. I trace the pendulum swing in their relationship in my book coming out this fall about Ihsan and Nasser, The Politics of Melodrama (Stanford University Press). While we don’t know all the details, it is clear that something happened behind the scenes in early fall 1963 that pushed Ihsan to rebel against Nasser. Traces of this falling out can be seen in the structure of A Nose and Three Eyes. While the novel can be read entirely as a brilliant work of romantic melodrama and the tragedy of failed love, it can also be read as a retelling and condemnation of Nasser’s rule up until the early 1960s through metaphor and allegory.

As I write in my introduction to the translation, each “Eye” appears to frame the three distinct phases of Nasser’s relationship with the nation. In the first section, which takes place during the early to mid-1950s, Amina, a double for both Egypt and Ihsan himself, divorces her husband, a marker of the corrupt previous era, on the delusion that the manly, strong, and enticing Hashim will marry her. It is a bet on the future that will lead Amina, like Ihsan, to regret, despair, and, ultimately, a haunting sense of degradation. In the second part, the sick Nagwa is healed by Hashim, who now appears as a messianic figure, mirroring and, perhaps, mocking the widespread public depictions of Nasser during the mid-to-late 1950s as the sublime savior of the nation. Finally, in the third part, which spans the late 1950s until the early 1960s, Hashim is a shell of his former self as he chases after a young, rebellious Lebanese woman, an obvious parallel for Nasser’s delusional infatuation with Syria in his failed romance with the United Arabic Republic.

Ihsan Abdel Kouddous is often compared with Naguib Mahfouz. Critics see Mahfouz’s fiction as literature, whereas Abdel Kouddous is more commonly seen as pulp. Why do you think it has taken so long to see English language publications of Abdel Kouddous?

There are many reasons why Ihsan has been neglected by critics and translators. Unlike Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, Ihsan was always seen as immensely popular but lowbrow because he wrote romantic melodrama. An important reason for his perception is the fact that he was the editor-in-chief of Rose El Youssef, the popular weekly magazine that he owned. For Ihsan, fiction was a crucial component of the success of the magazine. He wrote a new installment of fiction in each issue to keep readers coming back week after week.

The magazine was dependent on sales, not advertising, for its viability. This meant that Ihsan wrote his fiction in a crisp, almost cinematic style, using vocabulary and syntax that were easy to understand. This style was wildly successful, making him the most popular writer of Arabic fiction in the twentieth century, but it sadly did not appeal to critics, who rejected his work as commercially successful but not literary.

As a result, Ihsan’s fiction was never considered seriously by publishing houses for translation into English. With the publication of Ihsan’s I Do Not Sleep, in 2021 and now A Nose and Three Eyes, readers outside the Arab world can finally discover this giant of Arabic fiction for themselves.

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