Book Review - That Smell

With Egypt once more at a crossroads, Robyn Creswell’s new translation of Sonallah Ibrahim’s classic is timely. Set during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s reign, That Smell follows the fortunes of a recently released political prisoner as he wanders the streets of Cairo attempting to reconnect with friends and family.

Ibrahim paints a devastating portrait of a man whose brutal incarceration has left him stripped of emotions and physical sensation. On being freed the nameless narrator reports: “It was the moment I’d been dreaming of for years and I searched myself for some feeling that was out of the ordinary, some joy or delight or excitement, but found nothing.” The narrator’s liberation is unexpected and his family has not yet arranged a room for him. He is swiftly returned to captivity and placed in a holding pen where his fellow prisoners are herded together like animals; blood streaks the walls and men copulate with boys soundlessly.

The following day the narrator is released into the care of his sister. He is given a notebook which has his name and picture on the front cover. It is a bitter irony that the book is not for writing but serves to record his house arrest. Every day, he returns home at sunset to sign in with a policeman. Unable to write, the narrator cannot connect with anyone or anything: “People walked and talked and acted as if I’d always been there with them and nothing had happened.” He is rendered impotent – sexually, politically and creatively – and able only to pleasure himself. Ibrahim’s stark, spare prose underlines the bleak monotony of his protagonist’s life.

Ibrahim wrote That Smell in 1966 after a five-year spell in prison. The novella was immediately banned, the print-run confiscated by the authorities, and the original text not reproduced for twenty years. We now know the extent of Nasser’s corruption, the sociological and political repression, the state-sanctioned torture and cult of personality later mirrored by Hosni Mubarak. What is most remarkable is that Ibrahim managed to convey such a vivid sense of the country’s stagnation while living through it.

Originally published by the TLS