Exactly fifty years ago, the first Man Booker literary prize was granted to English writer P. H. Newby (1918 – 1997) for his novel Something to Answer For.
Newby had served in the Royal Medical Corps and visited Egypt for the first time in 1941. After he was released from the army in 1942, he taught English literature at King Fouad 1st University, now Cairo University, until 1946. During this time, he wrote his first novel.
His 17th novel Something to Answer For was published in 1968, a year after the Six-Day War, when Israel defeated the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian army and annexed large parts of Palestinian territories.
Then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had propagated pan-Arabism and was one of the key proponents of the Non-Aligned Movement, had been constantly making headlines in the Western media and was a thorn in the side of British, French and American governments alike.
Perhaps, this was one of the reasons why Something to Answer For resonated so strongly with the jury of the Booker McConnell Prize, as it was originally known, as it revolved around the Suez Crisis, a conflict with broad regional scope and which had parallels with the Six-Day War.
Something to Answer For is written from the perspective of an ex-British soldier, Townrow, who served in Port Said during World War II. He returns in 1956 to the port city before the Israeli invasion to help out a British widow, Mrs. K, whose Lebanese husband seems to have been mysteriously killed. Upon arrival, Townrow becomes entangled in an intricate arms smuggling operation and the Egyptian political upheaval of the time. The Egyptian police suspect he is a spy and monitor him closely.
I was very intrigued by the novel, as the beginning reminded me of Waguih Ghaly’s Beer in the Snooker Club (1964). Ghaly’s masterpiece, also written in English, dealt with the social and political upheaval in Egypt after the military coup of 1952. Like Something to Answer For, it has a Jewish Egyptian heroine and a renegade anti-hero, and it dwells on the relationships between Egyptians and the British.
The novel received the Booker Prize in 1969, a time not yet tempered with political correctness. It is inconceivable that it would have been celebrated today, as Townrow’s “incompetent” Egyptians are depicted as a brutal and savage pack who would even lash out at a defenseless naked man after he was robbed.
Some sentences border on racism, as when Townrow describes Egyptian officers.
“They were the leanest Egyptians Townrow had ever seen inside good suits and he assumed they were the New Men of the country, army officers,” one passage goes.
Of course, one must distinguish, though, between Newby and his characters. The 1950s were a turbulent time in Egypt and Nasser was disseminating nationalist propaganda, which fueled xenophobic sentiments against expatriates, as well as Jewish Egyptians.
The latter were eventually driven out of the country and some had their businesses nationalized.
Newby, one could argue, was simply reflecting on the belligerent sentiments of British expatriates stuck in Egypt. Mrs. K, who fears that the government will confiscate her husband’s assets, asserts that she would not have married her Lebanese husband if he was an Arab or a Jew.
A man Townrow meets in a bar calls the Egyptians a “crazy, treacherous people,” who cannot be trusted. The Jewish Egyptian heroine Leah asserts to Townrow that Egyptians are not as warm as Americans, and the neighbors in Port Said would never check on her or her sick father.
In a surreal scene, Newby depicts how an angry mob storm the apartment of Mrs. K, ransacking her belongings and throwing them on the street.
The only good Egyptian in the novel is a Coptic legal officer called Amin. And yet, he strikes the reader as completely unrealistic.
In one scene, Amin risks his career by challenging the Egyptian court’s president during an investigation into Townrow, vehemently defending Jews and condemning the Holocaust, whereupon the official throws a glass of water in his face.
Something to Answer For has huge literary and political deficits. The scene in which the mob storms the apartment, for example, struck me as implausible; Townrow and the widow remained paradoxically cool, although their lives were in imminent danger.
For a novel dealing with Egypt in the 1950s, even from the perspective of an English or Irish character, Newby avoided the local population, as if they were extras in a James Bond film. The reader does not grasp what it meant for Egyptians to shake off the yoke of British colonialism, why Egyptians were so adamant on nationalizing the Suez Canal, or why so many embraced Nasser’s propaganda.
Instead, Newby opted for a surreal atmosphere. Halfway through the book, the reader begins to question Tonwnrow’s sanity and his feverish perception of events.
In one scene, he mysteriously vanishes for months on a remote island. Nevertheless contrary to Franz Kafka’s absurd universe or Roberto Bolano’s blending sanity with insanity, Newby’s hazy images remained enigmatic.
One could perhaps see him as a distant forerunner to Thomas Pynchon with his bizarre settings and characters. Yet Newby lacks Pynchon’s humor, which is another deplorable feature of the novel – there was not a single character who struck me as sympathetic.
Even the pitiable Leah comes across stiff and clumsy. After her second encounter with Townrow, he strips naked and blocks the door. “What are you offering me? Rape?” she asks unconvincingly. Later in the novel, she becomes his lover.
Another huge deficit is the poorly constructed plot.
In the first hundred pages, Townrow stumbles from one random encounter to the next, so that his characters engage in lengthy and tiring dialogues. There are hardly any remarkable descriptions of Port Said, except for the mention of the famous Hotel de La Poste and the Yacht clubs.
Even when the characters leave the European district for the Arab ones, Newby contents himself with mentioning the smell of roasting meat, latrines, and incense.
There are no real descriptions of faces, clothes, or impressions of the characters intermingling with the local Egyptians.
In a way, Beer in the Snooker Club is everything Something to Answer For is not; namely a timeless classic, which sheds light on the tumultuous politics of the time and usurps the reader with its vivid portrayal of conflicted, relatable characters.
No wonder Something to Answer For remained out of print for so many years. Only in 2008 did Faber & Faber publish a new edition. After all, it was the first to win the Man Booker.