Cairo by Louis Armand
In college, certain professors often accosted me for reading "too much" international literature, as they feared it would take away my ability to really learn about various American voices. I still (stubbornly) often gravitate toward international literature, though, especially after having fallen into a deep love with works in translation. And I am thinking here about how reading international literature gave me certain ideas, about things like plot and momentum and structure.
As a junior in college, I befriended a young woman who was studying comparative literature at The University of Chicago. And though we were at different schools, studying different things and reading different authors, we found it fun to trade authors' names, and even the books we thought each other might like. I'm still into trading names, of authors I would never have even heard of without doing so. So when a good friend of mine recommended Cairo by Louis Armand, I felt the need to take a look, at a book whose only real possibility of reaching me was through the grapevine.
Cairo, published by Equus Press (based in Paris, London, and Prague), seems to be a reflection not only of the current independent European publishing scene, but also of literature's ability to globalize. The book, which traverses New York, Prague, London, Cairo itself, and the Australian desert, might be at once magical realism and science fiction, but what's easier to think about when classifying the book is examining the way it bridges story and geography.
Genre distinctions aside, Armand gives us a text that allows us to escape not only geographical and temporal positions, but also gives us many ideas with which to grapple, as we become familiar with multiple narrators who carry the story at their own, disparate paces. If one has seen a time-traveling X-Men film, or perhaps Blade Runner or even Sin City, they'll find themselves easily prepared for Armand's Cairo.
"A series of major floods had earned Prague its moniker as the Venice of Inland Europe," Armand writes. "The whole north-side, above the old city, had been rezoned into a network of canals and waterways. Barges, cruise boats and gondolas crowded the quays. Nightlights glimmered everywhere on black water." Whether through personal experience or Google Images, we can compare this particular vision of a very real city with the one that exists through examples of contemporary photography, or, with some of us, the one that exists in memory. Or, perhaps compare is the wrong word to use here, and we should instead replace it with reimagine -- Armand's text, in essence, asks that we reimagine certain places in order for them to fit his narrative. Plenty of sci-fi makes the same demands, sure, but does or should this change the way we prepare ourselves to enter a unique text? Television's Defiance, for example, has us reimagine the city of St. Louis, but I'm not at all certain that the leg work we do here as audience members hinders the effectiveness of the medium itself. Reimagining isn't a bad generic requisite, as we come to appreciate having added a new paint to the pictures we already know.
Additionally, Armand shows no ignorance of the cultures about which he writes, even if the versions of these cultures exist in Cairo far differently from the way(s) we know them. With phrases like "the yanks have gone completely off the beam about it" or calling North London "the armpit of mediocrity," there's a willingness here to bridge what's already known (or perhaps experienced by Armand himself) with what's created as part of the text. If there's a way to show off one's cosmopolitanism in a text, it can be seen in Cairo, as it's easy to get the feeling that Armand has more than just research on his side. If "write what you know" was advice once given to Armand as a young writer, from reading Cairo you'd never know whether or not he took it.
From issues of geography to those of caste systems and race, both in real and imagined contexts, Cairo certainly takes the reader on a tour, bringing them into a universe all its own. And though learning to navigate new universes in fiction can sometimes be a chore, at other times it acts as a relief, allowing us to add to a growing knowledge bank of invented people and places and things. This is to suggest, perhaps, that being familiar with characters like Luke Skywalker or places like Hogwarts can be good for our health, and reading the books that force us to learn about new and foreign atmospheres, like Cairo, shouldn't be brushed off just because of the work it asks us to do. The work of this literature, international or not, intergalactic or not, gives us the gift of being able to carry our thoughts to enriching, untrodden places.
Cairo by Louis Armand