- After a Funeral by Diana Athill
Cape, 158 pp, £9.50, February 1986, ISBN 0 224 02834 0
Waguih Ghali’s excellent novel Beer in the Snooker Club was published by André Deutsch in 1964. It attracted attention and enthusiastic reviews. The same happened when it was reissued in the Penguin New Writers series in 1968. On the night of Boxing Day that year, Ghali wrote in his diary:
I am going to kill myself tonight ... The time has come. I am, of course, drunk. But then sober it would have been very very very difficult. (I acknowledge the drunken writing myself.) But what else could I do, sweethearts? loved ones? Nothing, really. Nothing.
He swallowed 26 sleeping pills ‘sneaked’ from a friend’s medicine-chest:
And the most dramatic moment of my life – the only authentic one – is a terrible let-down. I have already swallowed my death. I could vomit it out if I wanted to. Honestly and sincerely, I really don’t want to. It is a pleasure. I am doing this not in a sad, unhappy way; but on the contrary, happily and even (a state of being and a word I have always loved) SERENELY ... serenely.
Waguih Ghali had good reason to love this state of being, which had eluded him throughout the forty years of his life. Born a Copt in predominantly Muslim Egypt and into a wealthy class at a time of socialist revolution, and educated at an English school at a time of national revival, he was also the one penniless member of a very rich family.
‘Ram’, the protagonist of Beer in the Snooker Club, has a very similar background and biography to those of his creator. He is a character full of contradictions, poor, but living rich on his family: ‘The fact that my aunts were very rich but not my mother, never occurred to me. I drifted on that rich tide. I was as well-dressed as the other [children] and went to the same school.’ Steeped in English culture, he engages in anti-British activities: demonstrations against the Occupation – ‘shouting “Evacuation” like everyone else, without precisely knowing why evacuation was so important’ – develop into excursions to Suez to harass the troops stationed there. He is financially dependent on his family, but abhors the means by which their wealth is made. To an old family friend who asks if he is ‘in business now’, he replies that he has ‘discovered a brand new way of exploiting the fellah. All I needed was capital.’ ‘You mustn’t joke about such things, dearie,’ she says. He cannot joke too much because he has the addiction to the good life which has been planted in him by family and upbringing: a taste for well-cut suits, for drink and for gambling. And yet when the Revolution comes in 1952 he takes to it ‘wholeheartedly and naturally, without any fanaticism or object in view ... socialism, freedom or democracy ... yes, that’s what the Egyptian revolution was; everything good was going to be carried out by the revolution.’ At the same time, his education at one of the Cairo English schools, and his prodigious reading (which is where he differs essentially from his class), have made him restless.
The world of ice and snow in winter and red, slanting rooftops was beginning to call us. The world of intellectuals and underground metros and cobbled streets and a green countryside which we had never seen, beckoned to us. The world where students had rooms and typists for girlfriends, and sang songs and drank beer in large mugs, shouted to us. A whole imaginary world. A mixture of all the cities in Europe; where pubs were confused with zinc bars and where Piccadilly led to the Champs-Elysées; where miners were communists and policemen fascists; where there was something called the ‘bourgeoisie’ and someone called the ‘landlady’; where there were Grand Hotels and Fiat factories and bull-fighting; where Americans were conspicuous and anarchists wore beards and there was something called the ‘Left’; where Christopher Isherwood’s German family lived, where the Swedes had the highest standard of living and where poets lived in garrets and there were indoor swimming-pools.
This world Ram describes here is the one visualised, longed-for and sought out by large numbers of Western-educated Egyptian ‘intellectuals’ from the beginning of this century until 1956.
Suez does not by itself disillusion Ram: it completes a process begun in the waiting-rooms of the Home Office:
We said this isn’t ‘cricket’, and didn’t smoke with our school blazers on because we had ‘promised’ not to do so. We had been implanted with an expectation of ‘fair play’ from the English. This stupid thing of expecting ‘fair play’ from the English, alongside their far from ‘fair play’ behaviour, was a strange phenomenon in us. Perhaps in our subsequent outcries against the English, there was the belief that if they knew that what they were doing wasn’t fair play, they would stop it. In spite of all the books we had read demonstrating the slyness and cruelty of England’s foreign policy, it took the Suez war to make us believe it. Of course the Africans and the Asians had had their Suezes a long time before us ... over and over again.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.