Interview with longlisted author Youssef Rakha


When did you begin writing Paolo and where did the inspiration for it come from?

I began Paolo within a year of finishing The Crocodiles (2012). Although each is a separate book, they form two parts of a trilogy about the intellectual-poet, or photographer, or translator, and his relationship to history generally and the Arab Spring in particular. My inspiration, as well as pondering the fates of characters in The Crocodiles more than ten years on, was a fascination with the habits and beliefs of the Masai, the songs of Mohammed Abdel Wahab and anger at the sloganism, exhibitionism and sectarianism of the "revolutionary forces".  

Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you finished it?

There were one or two false starts, and this was maybe what took time. But the novel was written relatively quickly, only the publication was delayed for reasons beyond my control. At that time, I was living in Cairo in my new house with my wife Heba and my daughter Kismet. My son Murad had not yet been born and I hadn't yet given up smoking.

How have readers and critics received it?

People have expressed either strong liking or intense hatred of the book. I think my writing always inspires such extreme reactions, especially since I use a language different from what is usually found in contemporary literary writing. But in the case of Paolo, I think that reactions were more extreme because its reception was coloured by political differences. I believe that some intellectuals belonging to the revolutionary camp couldn't bear its dark picturing of events, while on the other hand, the camp on the opposing side celebrated it as a radical exposé of the truth. Both read it as though it was an opinion piece in the newspaper, which it is not.  

What is your next literary project after this novel?

I am currently writing my first novel in English. I hope to finish it in 2017, although I don't know if this is possible. At the same time I'm thinking about the third part of the trilogy...