Sometimes the unexpected can prompt a meltdown; a tiny notice in the newspaper’s police notebook of the murder and burial of our narrator’s father three days earlier frames the novel. Learning English begins with this accidental announcement and ends with the arrival of the narrator at the village in a taxi.
Rachid, our protagonist (someone some day will address this uniformity in al-Daif’s novels where the leading characters have his name), starts by describing himself as a modern man. Educated, with a PhD from France, he teaches Arabic literature in a Lebanese university and lives in an upper-class neighbourhood. Middle-aged, divorced and currently in an open ended relationship with a divorcee, he considers his modernity to include quitting tobacco, staying trim and visiting a dermatologist – in short, urban and metro-sexual! It Author Rachid al-Daifwould not be fair to tag this novel, whose title in Arabic is a transliteration of the English one, as having to do with modernity. Rashid believes that English is now the new lingua franca; although he is fluent in French, acquiring this third language by teaching it to himself, would increase his competence in this digital age. English, after all, has its limitations; it cannot express the finer subtleties of thought. The full significance of the novel’s title will reveal itself toward the end neatly tying it in with the body of the work.
In this state of shock and disbelief, and unable to reach his family, multiple story-lines crowd Rachid’s mind. The pages of this concise novel are proof that the narratives which become central to our lives are those closest to us. Identity in part is a sum of these tales and Rachid’s tone changes as we read through “foundation myths” – stories of his father, his parent’s marriage, his birth, his grandmother, early childhood, although more central are his own mother’s great disappointments in life. The brilliance lies in depicting the son–mother relationship in all its complexities – Rachid, the protagonist, has unconsciously absorbed all these fragments which now resurface in his bewildered state. His paternity turns out to be an issue: the infatuation of his mother with someone else before her sudden and quick marriage sowed the initial doubt. More cultured than her husband, the marriage imprisoned her in a life she was to find hard to believe was hers. Nostalgia, with its many inaccuracies, false memories and repetition, creates the complexity of this multi-dimensional novel. Now in her sixties, the mother is bitter; her spiteful sarcasm, in one of the best crafted segments of the book, is where the title of the novel gets its nuance.
Many questions remain unanswered for Rachid: why didn’t anyone call him? Did his uncles doubt his paternity? Was their silence related to that doubt? Was his mother involved in killing a husband she detested from the day she married him? After so many years away, was Rachid really part of that village life and vendetta culture? Though these questions frame much of the narrative, we learn that these stories are not ones Rachid would readily share with his girlfriend – he could not imagine confessing to such a tumultuous background. Learning English examines identity; the many unanswered questions, as well as the many versions of a single event, contribute to its deliberate ambiguity. One concludes then that there are shades to identity as there are shades to narrative.
Although Learning English was excerpted in Banipal 6 (Autumn 1999), it was almost seven years before this full English translation was made available. Paula and Adnan Haydar are familiar with al-Daif’s work, the former having translated This Side of Innocence (Interlink, 2001). As a team the two Haydars have rendered a superbly seamless translation and have masterfully captured, and kept up with, the pace of the text. There is a maturity to al-Daif’s work; this faultless translation should be acknowledged as one of the best of Arabic fiction reads currently on the market.