Darf Publishers of London has published what may well turn out to be the longest Arabic work of fiction to appear in a single volume in English translation this year: Libyan author Ahmed Fagih's 613-page Maps of the Soul. The volume is the first three books of Fagih's 12-novel sequence of historical fiction, which bears the same title as the Darf trilogy. The entire 12-book sequence - which runs to more than 3,000 pages - was published as single volumes in Arabic in 2009 by Darf in Libya and al-Kayyal in Beirut. The three volumes in Darf's translated Maps of the Soul are Bread of the City, Sinful Pleasures and Naked Runs the Soul.
The trilogy went through quite an odyssey of translation before this final version was reached. The contents pages credit Thoraya Allam and Brian Loo with the initial translation, revised and edited by the Libyan writer, surgeon and blogger Ghazi Gheblawi. On the trilogy's final page Fagih thanks Graeme Estry and Ghazi Gheblawi for their efforts in editing and translation.
Fagih was born in the Libyan village of Mizdah in 1942 and since the mid-1960s he has written numerous novels, short stories and plays. Maps of the Soul is the first of his works to be published in English translation by a UK publisher since Quartet Books published the well-received novel Homeless Rats in 2011. Like that novel Maps of the City shows Fagih's talent as a storyteller and his interest in writing in fictional form on aspects of Libyan history and life which are not much known to the wider world.
As Darf Publishing puts it: "Othman falls for the city and its temptations, and with a natural instinct for survival, he perseveres on chance and opportunity. Maps of the Soul takes us in a journey into a different Libya, a country that has emerged from resistance wars in the early 1930’s, where the charismatic Italian colonialist Italo Balbo envisioned a new Rome for the fascist dream on what was named The Fourth Shore. It is a story of painful survival in the face of defeated dreams."
In an interview with this blog in October 2012 Fagih said that he sees the 12 volume sequence of novels as a series of four trilogies "which deal with the life and soul of Othman Habashy through his ups and downs." One noticeable feature of the first trilogy is the use throughout of the second person "you". Fagih says that over the 12 volumes he uses a variety of viewpoints including "third person, first person, second person and the all-knowing, god-like authority."
Fagih hopes that publication of Maps of the Soul will encourage translation and publication in English of the other three trilogies. The second trilogy is "a trilogy of war, set during the Italian campaign to take over Ethiopia - the second Italo-Abyssinian war - connected in its last part with World War 2 in the Western Desert where Othman is transferred and fights with the Italians. He later fights with the British against the Italians: this is a historic fact, with many Italians changing sides and giving themselves up during the fighting with the Italians and returning to fight them with a Libyan regiment, helping liberate Libya under the British Army".
The third trilogy "deals mostly with the birth of independent Libya, the birth of a nation." With Libya liberated from the Italians and now under British rule "Othman returns to Tripoli, this time as an officer in a position of power as head of the police. This part of the novel depicts Libya under British mandate and Libyans preparing to get their independence."
The fourth, final, trilogy "takes place in the desert. The country of nomads is depicted with all its multi-colours and flavours and desert traditions, and power structure, arts and folklore, bad and good and ugly and beautiful guys. Othman has been accused of breaking the law in pursuing his duties and feels that the colonial rulers are trying to make a scapegoat of him, so he flees the capital and takes refuge in the desert. It is a period of rehabilitation, of purifying himself in the solitude of the desert, becoming almost a holy man."