That Smell and Notes From a Prison by Sonallah Ibrahim


Suspected to be the iceberg that sank the RMS Titanic, there is supposedly a red smudge, like the Titanic’s red hull, near its base at the waterline. In iceberg jargon this would be termed a pinnacle, an iceberg with one or more spires. As we all know, typically only one-ninth of the volume of an iceberg is above water. Thank you for reading my rambling, but why did I get distracted by icebergs?

The theory of omission, which Ernest Hemingway termed the iceberg theory, is what lead me down an internet rathole labelled iceberg. In The Art of the Short Story, Hemingway wrote, “A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.” It is this theory that drew me to Hemingway and keeps me reading his work despite the macho posturing that I find tedious.

In That Smell, Sonallah Ibrahim is influenced markedly by Hemingway’s style but in ways takes it further, perhaps because it lacks Papa’s machismo. The short work describes a series of scenes that follow a narrator’s release from jail in prose that is honed with Damascus steel, sufficiently laconic to make Salinger appear garrulous. But even without possessing a deep knowledge of Egyptian politics of the period (the translator Robyn Cresswell provides an excellent introduction) you sense the eight-ninths below the surface of Ibrahim’s carefully constructed prose.

The New Directions edition includes also Notes From Prison, a selection of notes on writing and art from Sonallah Ibrahim’s seven years as a political prisoner. Ibrahim’s prison memoirs have yet to be translated, so with a wish to read more of his work I’ve ordered Stealth.

4 thoughts on “That Smell and Notes From a Prison by Sonallah Ibrahim

  1. I read this story in the D. J. Davies translation now long out of print, but did not know it had been put out recently by New Directions. This is very good news; Ibrahim is a writer who should be far better known in the Anglophone world than he is. Stealth is a small masterpiece; I am sure you will appreciate it. I still find it astounding that Ibrahim’s Amrikanli, a humorous yet quite caustic novel about an Egyptian history professor’s sojourn in San Francisco, has not yet been translated into English.

    • Thanks for your comment. I understand that Robyn Creswells translation for New Directions is closer to the form of the original. I hope they also tackle the prison memoirs.

  2. Pleased to know you liked it so much, Anthony. I was intrigued upon its publication and meant to add it to my to-read list but forgot all about it. I’ll put it on there for when the mood strikes. P.S. Good to see you back blogging/twittering.

    • Yes, hungry to read some more of Ibrahim’s work. The Prison Notes are especially interesting.

      P.S. Thanks, still deeply ambivalent about Twittering but back for now.

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