“Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “Perhaps our culture is nothing but jokes.”
Told from the point of view of Ram, the scion of a Coptic family in Egypt’s elite, Beer in the Snooker Club is a window into the upper crust of Egyptian society in the wake of King Farouk’s ouster in 1952. The revolution is forcing the rich to give up much of their money, but they remain diverse–coptic, jewish, muslim–and live blindly within their clubs, ignorant of the wider world around them. Ram, short for Ramis, is disdainful of his myopic peers, and refuses to play nice with them in order to ensure his own comforts, instead preferring to leech off wealthy friends and live gambling windfall to gambling windfall. In general Ram gets by because of his charm and connections, but uses his education to mock most of his peers, and particularly his cousin Mounir to his face.
The story, with Ram as narrator, consists of two settings. The first, which comprises both the opening and the closing, is Cairo, with its gambling clubs and family residences. Sandwiched between these, however, is a partially narrated stay in England, in the immediate buildup to the Suez Crisis. Ram goes to England with his friend Font and their teacher, benefactor, and (for Ram) lover, Edna, a jewish heiress some five years their senior. The trip is significant for their relationships, including offering struggles at the consulate, with former British soldiers, with money, and with Ram’s descent to bitter flippancy, but Ram only describes the falling out with Font and Edna, not any of the potentially more significant events that transpired, including the actual outbreak of the conflict or his deportation.
Ram describes his situation as “suspended between eras of civilization.” Farouk’s monarchy has fallen, Nasser’s revolution has proven inadequate, and Egypt remains at the mercy of American fact-finders and British whims, which now cater to the new ruling elite. The old cosmopolitan ruling class is beginning to fall apart. One of the main tensions in the story is what it means to be Egyptian and whether one should consider themself as a citizen of a country or a citizen of humanity; Ram looks to the latter, but most do not.
Beer in the Snooker Club is a tight little love story centered on, as Edna once calls him, “lonely” Ram. This part of the story was fine, though I liked the women Ram liked more than I liked Ram, who was sort of a petty man who would claim he thought about the greater humanity, but really thought about immediate, simple pleasures. At least in this particularly retelling where there is a sense of both supreme ego and also self-loathing. What made it remarkable to me, however, was not the story itself, but what the story danced around. Major events, either for the characters or for the world, were not narrated, but happened offstage only to have their consequences come to bear in the personal relationships. To whit, Ram is deported from England (but has a major development while there), Edna receives a nasty scar across her face from a whip, Font goes off to fight at the Suez, and all of these events inform the action back in Cairo. Perhaps most importantly, Ram becomes involved in a scheme to publicize the brutality of the new regime. The question is will his political beliefs or his interest at immediate satisfaction win out.
I read that this book is a semi-autobiographical work by Waguih Ghali, and I suspect that another of the tensions alluded to in the text is a result of this. Beer in the Snooker Club was originally written in English and thus the (anti)hero has an English education and is somewhat dismissive of those Egyptians with their hoighty French education and describes Arabic as a language for the common Egyptians. This stood out particularly because the French-educated Albert Cossery took a similar approach to describing jokes as central to Egyptian culture and it was the Arabic-language author Naguib Mahfouz (several of whose books are on my to-read pile) who won the Nobel Prize. I prefer Cossery of those I’ve read thus far, but they tell different stories and are coming from different parts of Egyptian society.
Ghali published only the one book, having committed suicide in 1969 before finishing his second novel. There were points at which this narrative seemed to skip around, but, ultimately, Beer in the Snooker Club is a moving story about Ram’s maturation and subsequent dissolution. I may not hold with his actions, beliefs, or entire world view, but I felt for him and in this sort of story that is sufficient.
Next up, I am currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s Nebula, Locust, and Hugo award-winning novel The Dispossessed.