English writer P. H. Newby was the first winner of the Man Booker Prize. Photo credit: Unknown

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.

Colonial legacy

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.

Surreal atmosphere

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.

Join the Conversation

65 Comments

  1. Hi, I do believe this is an excellent site. I stumbledupon it 😉 I am going to return yet again since I book marked it.
    Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to
    help other people.

  2. That is a good tip particularly to those new to the blogosphere.

    Brief but very precise info… Thanks for sharing this one.
    A must read article!

  3. Because the admin of this web site is working, no uncertainty very quickly it will be famous, due to its feature contents.

  4. It’s perfect time to make a few plans for the longer term and it is time to be happy.
    I have learn this submit and if I may just I wish to counsel you
    few fascinating things or tips. Perhaps you can write subsequent articles relating
    to this article. I wish to read even more things about it!

  5. you are in reality a excellent webmaster. The website loading pace is
    incredible. It kind of feels that you are doing any distinctive trick.
    In addition, The contents are masterpiece. you’ve performed
    a magnificent activity on this topic!

  6. Admiring the time and energy you put into your site and in depth
    information you present. It’s awesome to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same outdated rehashed material.

    Wonderful read! I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my Google account.

  7. My brother recommended I might like this blog.
    He was totally right. This post truly made my day.

    You cann’t imagine simply how much time I had spent for this info!

    Thanks!

  8. My spouse and I stumbled over here coming from a different page and thought I should
    check things out. I like what I see so i am just following you.
    Look forward to finding out about your web page for a second time.

  9. We are a group of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community. Your web site offered us with valuable info to work on. You’ve done a formidable job and our entire community will be grateful to you.

  10. If you are going for finest contents like me, just pay a quick visit
    this web page everyday since it provides quality contents, thanks pof natalielise

  11. Hello, i think that i saw you visited my web site thus i came to “return the favor”.I am attempting to find things to improve my site!I suppose its ok to use some of your ideas!!

  12. I’ve been surfing online more than 4 hours today, yet I never found any interesting
    article like yours. It is pretty worth enough for me.

    In my opinion, if all web owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the net will
    be much more useful than ever before.

  13. I feel this is one of the most vital info for me.

    And i’m glad reading your article. However should
    statement on some common things, The site taste is ideal,
    the articles is truly great : D. Excellent activity, cheers

  14. Hi there are using WordPress for your blog platform?
    I’m new to the blog world but I’m trying to get started and set up my own.
    Do you need any html coding expertise to make your own blog?
    Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  15. Usually I don’t read article on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very pressured me to take a look at and
    do so! Your writing style has been amazed me.
    Thanks, very great post.

  16. Wow! This blog looks exactly like my old one! It’s on a totally different subject but it has pretty much the same layout and design. Excellent choice
    of colors!

  17. This is the very interesting post. We like that you merely provide quality information and not merely write about something.
    Retain it up and you may attain great results.

    Exactly what do an individual think about my site? senzori pescuit

  18. This is a really interesting website I forced to say.

    Too polluted that there are not too assorted websites like This anymore. But I am exhilarated that I develop it. Good criticism on it .

    You can glom my website here as unquestionably: xbody bucuresti

  19. I believe everything posted was actually very reasonable.
    But, think about this, suppose you were to write a killer post title?

    I am not suggesting your content isn’t solid., however suppose you added something that makes people want more?
    I mean Fifty years of the famed Man Booker started on the Nile – Asia Times is kinda plain. You should glance at Yahoo’s home page
    and see how they create news headlines to grab people to click.
    You might add a video or a related pic or two to get readers excited about everything’ve written. In my
    opinion, it could make your blog a little bit more interesting.

  20. You can definitely see your enthusiasm in the work you write.

    The world hopes for more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to
    say how they believe. All the time follow your heart.

  21. Hello, I think your website might be having browser compatibility issues.
    When I look at your website in Firefox, it looks fine but
    when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping.
    I just wanted to give you a quick heads up!
    Other then that, great blog!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *