Thursday, April 7, 2016

Chewing Gum by Mansour Bushnaf, translated by Mona Zaki

Chewing Gum 
Mansour Bushnaf
Translated by Mona Zaki (Arabic)
Originally 2008, I read ebook of 2014 translation
126 pages, satire

Many thanks to Darf Publishers for providing a review copy of this novel. 

“Our hero looked on as our heroine walked away in the rain, wrapped in her black coat and red shawl. Ten years went by before he was able to whisper into her ear again, ten years during which he remained standing in the exact spot where she had left him in the park, enduring his terrible suffering. Days went by, then months, and years. He waited in the rain while she walked on, hoping she would stop, turn and run back. Her red shawl fluttered gently as she headed towards the sunset, revealing her black shoulder-length hair.”

So begins this story – a satirical fable about life in Libya, centered around these two characters and the park where our hero waits in the rain. The tale is told in dreamlike vignettes with a different focus on almost every page; some of these are only tangentially related to the two main characters. This creates a fully formed, if piecemeal, narrative that critiques Libyan society from the pre-colonial period to the present day.

Actor Network Theory

While other reviewers have noted the existential nature of this novel, I want to highlight something completely different: the way that these various narrative strands correspond to Actor Network Theory, or ANT.

Stick with me here.

ANT is a social science theory that emphasizes the fact that everything (from sunlight to a can of coke to the person drinking it) is an actor, or active player. Everything happens because of the actions of innumerable actors, and every action has an effect on innumerable actors. If you look at any scenario widely enough, you can trace these connections.

In this novel, Bushnaf looks at the circumstances of his two main characters from exactly this angle. He examines the park - its history, who goes there, and why it gains attention. Actions hundreds of years ago, such as the building of a pleasure palace, still have repercussions in the present and future. A statue of unknown origin has incredible effects on its viewers. Even estranged blood relationships have significant effects.

It is for this reason that the narrative, if you want to call it that, expands so much without bursting and becoming overdone. All of these disparate stories are intimately related, and the author emphasizes the importance of that relationship.


This novel is written in a highly satirical tone with frequent breaking of the fourth wall. The narrator wants to convey the absurdity of life under the changing Libyan governments. It pokes fun at everyone: from the Italians with their finely manicured parks, to the excesses of the Ottoman rulers, to the brutality and repression of the Gaddafi regime. Although I am not familiar with Libyan history, these often hilarious anecdotes were not difficult to connect with, and I highly enjoyed this novel. I recommend it for anyone who likes satire or expansive, existential cultural critiques.

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