An excerpt, taken from the opening pages of Nael El Toukhy‘s novella ليلى أنطون (Merit, 2006) [Leila Anton].
Leila Anton remained a woman surrounded by mystery all the days of her life. Few were those who set eyes on her; fewer still those who claimed to know her well. The real issue was that even those who’d seen her remained wracked by doubt over what they’d seen. They remembered scenes in which she figured, but all was uncertain as dreams or shadows. More than one resolved to write about her but no sooner started than he’d be plagued by doubts over his own existence, as though a lack of certainty over her existence instantly cast a veil over his own. Setting the letters L-E-I-L side by side all is effortless and untroubled, but the instant the final A’s signed off the devil mounts the author. It begins with lethargy and questions running through his mind of the What-am-I-doing? Where’d-I-ever-get-the-balls-to-write-about-her? type, questions that evolve into unequivocal and bitter convictions: I’m not writing… I don’t exist… I was never born… My father never knew my mother… At best I’m just a spark in the mind of a non-existent god…
Leila takes off her knitted jacket in the dark. Static sparks. Watching the air, charged with new force, Leila’s eyes flash. Were some imaginary figure able to observe her eyes he should not know which brought the other into being: her eyes’ lightning or the knitted jacket’s sparks. A third element intrudes and the matter grows more complex. It is the gleam of memory shining in Leila Anton’s eyes: a memory from a distant past, which left her pledging fealty to the jacket’s sparks. Fealty doesn’t cover it. Add a feeling of feebleness and inconsequence in the presence of gleams like those that issue forth in darkest darkness from a filthy, shabby, knitted jacket; a feeling which, one black winter’s night before the sparks illuminating the room, led Leila Anton to sink to her knees and say in tones of unfeigned petition and terror: Mama… Mama…
Many speculated about the reason for Leila Anton’s failure to produce a boy or girl to inherit her great wealth, divvied up between five international banks. This, despite the men she married, not one of whom gave the slightest sign of suspecting infertility in his most potent wife. The speculation stayed buried in the minds of the questioners. No one voiced the question. They feared that were it spoken Leila Anton’s eyes would flash with unexampled rage. It was not Leila Anton’s rage that was frightening but rather her answer, simple and straightforward yet unendurably terrible, that would be thrown out in her eyes’ lightning, the electric lightning, the lightning so alike to static sparks cascading from a knitted jacket in a darkened room. They knew the answer. They feared it. They knew that Leila Anton had a daughter. Everyone knew she existed and held their tongues because this daughter belonged, somehow, to the realm of things which language does not speak of and in any attempt to speak of which lurks the potential for destruction. They knew that just to speak the daughter’s name means death; means absolute sundering, absolute inundation.
Just two were able to write about her. They kept on at it, stumbling even at the height of their excitement. Souad and Amina. One in Cairo, the other in Alexandria. At first they were afraid. Each one said, I shan’t write anything worth a dime. It wasn’t the trickiness of existential imponderables they feared, but triviality. They feared the writing flowing easy, as in some cheap romance. One sat at her desk in Khaled Bin Walid Street, the other in her dining room in Qullali, and they began. In the beginning neither knew of the other’s existence. They proceeded, pushing pen over paper and taking pleasure in the friction’s sound. Stranger still, perhaps, neither was aware of Leila Anton’s existence in the first place. Both began the story as a work of pure fiction, even as they pressed on so violently across the white paper, both certain that it was a purely imaginary person they hurt and wounded, whose virgin’s blood they caused to flow.
Leila Anton stands for long hours before the mirror. She experiments with certain expressions: angry, eager, fearful. She tries controlling the lightning in her eyes. She wants her lightning to rival sparks that spring from knitted wool rubbed against itself. Bit by bit a titanic struggle evolves between her eyes and the sparks in the blackness. She does not envy the sparks; just wants to come up with something similar. She wants her eyes to crackle in the dark like coals, jigging fire inside. She wants to turn her eyes to two real coals. Only in this way, says she, shall I see my daughter propagated from my eye: my daughter, of whose existence no one knows and if they do will never dare confess their knowledge. From my eye my daughter shall be born, just as I was born from the womb of a spark which fell from a knitted jacket in an old lady’s hand.
Souad and Amina said: Let me write something about a weary woman (not wearying but weary), who has suffered much in her life and is now a model of success. They opened the phone book to pick a name for this weary (not wearying) woman and their eyes fell on the name, Leila Anton. Just so, they said, and set to work. With time they became increasingly interested in sharpening the lead pencil to a point, capable of wounding and hurting the white page and thus the weary character that they’d chosen. Their delight at creating a new sentence was equivalent to the secret pleasure felt by two men who together (not in turn, but together) sleep with a woman as beguiling and abundantly detailed as Leila Anton, the woman who, in that moment, will be able to take pride in the fact she issued from the womb of a tome as important and bountiful as a phone directory, regardless of her place in the directory, ignoring the existential question of the number of the page on which the name Leila Anton falls.
Leila doesn’t remember much about her birth. All she recalls is a constant and immoderate longing for electricity, its bolts and sparks. In the beginning the longing would make her weep. Then the fact she could not break free of it came to frighten her, she who’d grown accustomed to smashing to bits her longing for anything till all she heard of it was a resounding clang. The longing, and her fear of it, began to grow inside her and branch out until she admitted, both to herself and to the knitted jacket’s sparks, the absolute filial bond that bound them. And like any daughter lately found out who she is she overdid her homage to this bond. She wanted to prove her affection for her discovered mother and she feared going too far. She wanted and at the same time she wanted not to want. Naked and barefoot on the water-wetted tiles after a hot shower she’d rub her feet against the plug socket and current would course through her skin, warm as a kindly mother’s embrace, sounding the same note as a daughter weeping before her mother, declaring: Hold me, Mama.
Leila Anton married five men and a man. The five didn’t last long. Whether the blame for this lay with them or with her, they had in common a feeling of loneliness in her company as if she were leaving a window ajar in mid-January. A coldness that stayed with them summer and winter. Fouzi said, My teeth would chatter in June. Adel put it down to the air conditioning. Murad stated that she never had air conditioning in the house and Raymon couldn’t remember if she had or not. The four of them—Fouzi, Adel, Murad and Raymon (plus Androus)—quickly discovered that they couldn’t remember a thing about her house aside from the desolate cold it gave off. All this and they knew nothing of their sixth, Labib Azer Bakhoum, who was found rigid in water on the morning of the third of August: rigid and dead, rent and spent.
Souad-Amina never conceived of Leila Anton being familiar with a pleasure like that of copulation, but they both did it with her regardless. They took off all their clothes and began to write, pressing the long, fat pen onto the paper, pressing harder and harder, the pen trembling, ablaze with its own private pleasure.
And they do not stop. The pen wobbles, trembling. They moan and make noises. They stretch it out as far as they can. They do not let the ink flow until their pleasure has reached its peak. At the last, with the thrill fully ripened in the pen, it spurts out ink and ideas. The white pages are spattered with paragraphs about a woman named Leila Anton. Souad-Amina stand on their balconies. They smoke and chew two eclairs. They smile with the contentment of a man who’s dumped his thick spermatic load.
Leila Anton stands before the mirror. She turns out the light. She lights up with rage. More accurately, she lights herself with rage. At first, the rage grows within her. A cell of rage, its flame spreading to another. The rage goes on popping and crackling inside her and slowly sweeps through everything.
When her eyes began to send out sparks she sensed the room almost combusting with light. As though the light flays her. Her pleasure begins to mount. At first, a tickling; sweet smiles. Then her guts begin to stir. Her sweat pours. There is no longer any meaning to her standing before the mirror, for the quantity of all-engulfing light emitted from her eyes allows her to see herself without a mirror. She retires aroused to her bed. She starts to strip. She lies on her back. By the time she comes to remove her knickers and her moans can brook no further delay, her rage and pleasure together (not in turn, but together) have flooded the room. By the time this thing within her (the sparks, the pen) detonates, the room has been utterly crushed beneath the weight of the rage leaping in her eyes. The electricity has set the whole neighbourhood ablaze. One hundred persons writing about a woman called Leila Anton are killed in mysterious circumstances. Two alone begin the first page of their novel about the same woman. The two smile in vain satisfaction, with all this ink now spilled across their pages.
Fouzi-Adel-Murad-Raymon-Androus said that this wasn’t quite true. They said they had never felt cold in her house: it was more a heat, a burning, though subsequently they were startled to find that they’d contracted influenza, developed a weak pulse, a consequence of unrelenting cold. They said, We couldn’t bear a speck of dust to touch our skin. We were hot and burning up. No, no: burning up and hot. That’s more like it. But not one recalled feeling any of the symptoms of influenza, despite their temperatures, which sometimes ran as high as forty according to the thermometers dangling from their mouths. They said, This made us doubly sensitive to pain. They said, The pain is unbearable. Our shining, delicate, reddened skin can’t bear it. Their skin was blazing red.
Labib Azer would sign his letters, written in French, with the two initials L.A. just as (or just as he imagined) Leila Anton did, but this was not enough for an equal and open relationship to develop between them. This was what he hoped for and he assumed that by these two Latin letters he could gain ascendancy over her; assumed that this French L.A. was a sign from a compassionate French god that would bind, linguistically, the fates of each with the other. Gradually, he came to realize that it was she who had bound him with the two letters. He found that the Arabic pronunciation of Azer had become too heavy for his tongue, that Air-Zeer was easier, even as he learnt that Leila Anton had never signed with her initials. The melodic noose he’d cast to bind his woman to him had come to loop about his own neck. And while Labib Air-Zeer yearned to return to the simple Labib Azer of old, this last was doing all he could to distance himself, preserving his pleasure in his own purity and gazing on the world with the eyes of an grand jester.
What Souad-Amina wrote about Leila qualified as a short story, but they were after a novel or an encyclopaedic work. They took to cramming it with needless detail. They weren’t really interested in Leila Anton’s life story, but their desire to clothe their woman in flesh and blood is what packed the work with all this crap, which was, nevertheless, impossible to do without. Why is it impossible to do without? they asked themselves and answered, Because a vast quantity of crap must surely contain one vital detail. This detail is the thing their protagonist elects to be her written truth, like a shower of static sparks filling a room, just one of which Leila Anton’s eggs select to become little DoubleLeila. DoubleLeila, who chose to be the daughter of the finest detail, of the impossible-to-deny physical embodiment of a woman picked from a phone book.
Labib Azer sat in the armchair. He opened a large book and puffed smoke from his pipe. He heard rapping at the door. Yawning, he got up to open it. He saw a figure like himself. Labib Azer said, Who are you? and the figure said, I’m Labib Air-Zeer, I’ve come to fashion you anew. Kill me then, said Labib Azer. Labib Air-Zeer said, Sure, took a revolver from his pocket and fired off several random shots not one of which hit Labib Azer, who said, You missed; give me the gun so I can try. He took the revolver and he too fired off random shots. Not one struck Labib Air-Zeer. Not even a scratch. At this, the two sat down and struck a glum, funereal note: We’re failures. We can’t even harm ourselves and both of us have ended up shamelessly alive. Shameless, shameless, shameless.
Not one of her husbands penetrated Leila Anton. She would lie on the bed and her husband would come to lie beside her. He draws closer and tries to touch her. She looks at him with irritation and says, You know prawns? Of course, he says. You’re a shrimp, she says and he cries happily to himself, I’m a shrimp, I’m a shrimp, and curls up like a shrimp and she looks at him in disgust and sets about peeling him. She peels off the first layer and starts fondling the skin that is uncovered, red and gleaming and inflamed. The shrimp screams, No, no that hurts me, and she knows that it hurts him because the shelled shrimp is hurt by that which will not hurt a shrimp unshelled. But the eyes of Leila Anton, smouldering with rage, burn with pleasure, and she commences pinching, rapidly and daintily, at spots all over her shrimps, whose bestial, plaintive squeaks rise higher. Here, Fouzi-Adel-Murad-Raymon-Andreas become five shelled shrimps like almonds upon Leila Anton’s table. Five shrimps, whose mistress declines to gobble them up for good, revelling instead in the feeble sounds that tumble out each time a single grain of sand touches their skins.
Labib Azer married Leila Anton in a wedding attended by high officials, businessmen and stars of stage and screen. They danced having first drunk copiously. By five am at this riotous celebration no one cared who was drunk and who was sober. As he danced with her, his touch became more sensual, just like a teenager, a fool. He reached out to feel between her thighs and she appeared to enjoy it. Upon her bed she gave moans aplenty. Despite the booze that they’d imbibed, neither laughed. It was as though they were engaged in some deadly serious activity. Pleasure was had, too. He went to sleep before her. For a long while she stared at him and stayed awake. She didn’t sleep till ten and woke at twelve. Just two hours sleep, but in those two hours she dreamed what a normal woman would take a full ten hours to dream. Her dream was intense and compressed.