Mansour Bushnaf (Darf Publishing 2014, Trade paperback) 120 pages, Amazon Price £4.04
Just before I began writing this review, I sent a message to my friend, the brilliant author and teacher of writing Lance Olsen. I urged Lance to buy a copy of Chewing Gum, which tickled me no end. Within our three year friendship, even though I'm the book reviewer, it is always Lance who is tipping me off to the new writers worth discovering and almost never the other way around. (Yes, we literati are sometimes competing truffle pigs, and don't pretend that shocks you.) But I said to him, 'This is that rarest of novels/novellas – just 120 pages long. You want to stop and consider absolutely every sentence.'
I wasn't exaggerating.
I haven't a clue how many novels I have read in my life (although I do rather wish I had kept a Reader's Diary), however let's guess. I usually read three books a week, sometimes four. So given the prevalence of long-form fiction, I likely plow through two novels a week, 100 a year, times 40 years gives us 4,000. Chewing Gum is in the Top Ten. So sorry, William Makepeace Thackeray, but Barchester Towers has just been bumped. Hope you forgive, love love, kiss kiss etc.
Why I instantly thought of Lance as a recipient of this book is that his whole bag is releasing narrative fiction from tired structures; letting the art of words be as free to experiment as the arts of painting or sculpture par exemple. And this, Mansour Bushnaf does both freely and openly. He not only shifts the POV of his narrative from one character to another in the third chapter in a transmission-straining hammer brake and turn worthy of Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road, he flat out states it. He also does it in a late chapter, limning his own plot then conspiratorially whispering, 'This is the story, everything else is peripheral.'
Those peripheries are left to you, the reader, to interpret and form. Here is clay – make a sculpture. I battered my head against thoughts for a good long while, seeking – as you do – the 'correct solution' to Bushnaf's symbology before I realized that was exactly his point: we assign meaning to the meaningless.
Chewing Gum takes place in Tripoli, Libya yet there is no mention on Q'Addafi or the recent wars and invasions. A clash of cultures is highly evident, particularly in the form of a literally seductive statue in the Italian style which is housed in a park. That park is also the home of gum dealers (gum is the Libyan national addiction), poets, prostitutes, and a lonely man named Mukhtar who waits ten years for a prostitute named Fatma to turn around and come back to him.
I do not know Mansour Bushnaf, although I would love to both interview him and add him to m Author's Wall of Fame, yet I am willing to shove my chips in on a gamble of instinct. The only other novella I have truly loved, and its story is the re-working of a screenplay, is The Third Man by Graham Greene. The Third Man is also my favourite movie ever, and given the current state of word-less filmmaking I'll be bloody shocked if that rank is ever challenged.
The Third Man film ends with Alida Valli walking past Joseph Cotten in a Vienna cemetery, not looking back, just walking out of frame. Cotten stands and watches, motionless, through the rolling of the credits. If that scene was not in Bushnaf's head when he composed this novel, I'll eat my hat, your hat, and your neighbour's hat if you'll rip it off his head.
No, my loves, this is a book of genius. I said earlier that every sentence bears contemplation, so to test my own theory, I just randomly chose Any Old Passage. This is it:
The sculpture was the curse that drove here away. She was intelligent enough to know that Mukhtar was lost, that he was looking for the image of the sculpture in her and that he needed an idol, whilst she needed movement. So she left him, motionless, in the rain.'
One fascinating thing about Chewing Gum is that there is absolutely no dialogue in it. Barely a quote of speech as well. I suspect that may be a reason for its short length, yet I did not even realize, 'Hey, where's the dialogue?,' until I was halfway through. As a book editor, I am fgorever urging my client-authors to add more dialogue so we can escape from a monotonous narrative voice. Mansour Bushnaf's is a voice I could pleasantly listen to forever.
I will soon be presenting my Book Awards for 2014. If anyone thinks they can beat Chewing Gum for the Best Novel Award anytime soon, tell Scott Fitzgerald to get off his ass, stop being dead, and start writing, now!
Be seeing you.