FEBRUARY 21, 2020
MORE SO THAN a novel, possibly due to its autobiographical nature, Sonallah Ibrahim’s Ice reads like a diary. Each chapter is narrated in the first person, and rarely exceeds two pages. The prose (translated by Margaret Litvin) is, for the most part, impressionistic, and the text mostly consists of telegraphic annotations of daily encounters and circumstances. As the fictional account of a lifelong Marxist’s stay in the promised land of communism, Ice indeed feels cold, almost detached. Hardly any emotional shade or political enthusiasm arise from its pages. The author chronicles his everyday life matter-of-factly in Soviet Moscow, with most of his attention accorded to women. Their anatomical features are described in meticulous yet graceful details, never vulgar. Concisely, he manages to impress on paper the rousing thrill of an unexpected encounter. “I liked her eyes when she smiled: full of humour, mischief, intelligence, and joy,” he writes of an Armenian woman met through a common friend.
At the same time, the narrator doesn’t shy away from the less romantic aspects of a man’s sexual life, from his prostate problems to the awkward frost that can at times seal an unsuccessful liaison. Though fervidly enticed by them, the unnamed protagonist never seems to find an anchorage. His emotional vagrancy pulls him from one woman to another with no discernible direction. He is struck by a passage from Thornton Wilder that may allegorically account for his indistinct fixation: “This love — of which poets make so fine a show — is nothing but the desire to be loved and the necessity in the wastes of life to be the fixed center of another’s attention.” The one person whose attention he craves is Zoya, a married woman under the spell of his “handsome German” roommate, Hans. In her, the main character seems to find something more than a passing attraction, though unrequited. The dorm (obshchezhitie) of the unnamed institute where the protagonist studies is the main stage onto which the narrative unfolds, occasionally interrupted by forays into the outside world to pay visit to a friends’ place, or to go for a walk to a restaurant or movie theater. Interestingly, there is hardly any mention of his academic routine. (In real life, Ibrahim had attended the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, VGIK. As for his fictional alter ego, it is altogether unclear what exactly he is studying.)
Ibrahim’s focus on the mundane and his deadpan tone frame his oblique observations of Soviet society. Subtly, the author picks up its inconsistencies and dark humor: “the health of the Soviet citizen is sacred,” a friend tells the protagonist, “his sanity — that’s another story,” she sarcastically adds. He is also aware of the different treatment reserved to internationals: “I went to the cashier for my monthly stipend, double what the Soviet students got,” and of the gap between civil progress and societal mores, “abortion was legal, only in hospitals, yet many women couldn’t go because they didn’t want their families or workplaces to know.”
The different nationalities, ethnic groups, and cultures that made up what is often reductively referred to as “Russia” is refracted through his prose with no ethnographic pretension. As its very name suggested, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a federation of national republics which, while politically subjected to The Party line and its ideological paternalism, must have maintained as a matter of historical course a certain degree of cultural independence. As it is often the case, life in the capital seems unrepresentative of its periphery. An oil engineer from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, tells him:
[N]o one lives on his salary, that’s true of all the republics but especially the Asian ones. I had a friend from Uzbekistan — you wouldn’t believe the stuff he told me about the corruption there. Some people live like in the Middle Ages, with private armies, militias. Ordinary workers are like serfs in their fiefdom.
When the old lady in the cloakroom of the Bolshoi Theatre “proudly refuses” his tip, we get a glimpse of a mentality far removed from the mercenary ethos of daily capitalism: “[I]f some people are forced to serve others to earn a living, that’s no reason to insult them with tips,” she tells him. All the same, the black market is thriving. Ibrahim’s narrative is devoid of both prejudice and idealization, so much so that it is indeed hard to read through the lines the writer’s point of view. What’s palpable is a dry dose of disillusionment, though mainly targeted at his own country of origin and the Arab world more generally. Of Alexandria, he says to a friend: “[I]t used to be clean in the past, when there had been foreigners. Now that it was ours we had messed it up,” failing perhaps to highlight the connection between the ravages of colonialism and its aftermath. “The Arab regimes don’t know how to do anything but lose,” he confesses to a Syrian friend in the middle of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War when the Soviet Union backed both Syria and Egypt (after Stalin had been the first head of state to recognize the newborn state of Israel in 1948). The year 1973 also saw the (democratically elected) socialist leader Salvador Allende deposed in a CIA-backed coup in Chile. When for the occasion his roommate reads a poem by Yevtushenko dedicated to Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the narrator brushes the Argentine revolutionary off as a fetish of the “childish Left.”
One could hypothetically trace the author’s disillusion back to his own personal and political biography. When only 22 years of age, in 1959, Ibrahim was arrested and sentenced to a seven-year prison sentence when Nasser’s regime started cracking down on dissidents, communists included (even though the latter had supported his coup in 1952). He was released in 1964 when Khrushchev visited Egypt to inaugurate the al-Aswan Dam and recognized the nationalist leader as the USSR’s sole political interlocutor, on condition that communist dissidents were freed. Curiously, considering Ibrahim’s course of studies almost a decade later, the al-Aswan Dam is the subject of the only Soviet-Egyptian co-production in the history of cinema. To commemorate the event in fact, the famed Egyptian director Youssef Chahine was commissioned a film which both Soviet and Egyptian officials withheld, unhappy with the final result (Chahine refused to re-edit it and smuggled out of the country the only existing copy of the film with the help of the French cultural attaché in Cairo).
The author’s roommate in real life was the Syrian director Mohammad Malas, whose student film Everything Is Alright, Mr. Police Officer even featured Ibrahim in a small role. An episode from Malas’s book Portrait of a Friend, about his friendship with the Egyptian novelist, also appears in Ice. It concerns the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian student union whose head “wanted to declare films and theatre un-Islamic” and had accused the writer and intellectual Taha Hussein, who died in 1973, of “atheism” at a “party held in his memory.” Constantin Katsakioris, a scholar of Arab-Soviet relations, noted in this regard how the Muslim Brotherhood “challenged the predominant nationalist, socialist and communist ideologies” prevalent among other Arab student unions in the USSR and “exposed the limits of Soviet influence on students as well as revealing their disenchantment with the socialist path of development.” The author’s disenchantment with the Soviet model must have been very different from that of his Islamist compatriots.
For one thing, Ibrahim loved cinema very much, and the films he watched while in Moscow keep popping up throughout the book. One movie, in particular, the author keeps returning to, Otar Iosseliani’s Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Blackbird (1970), ranks among the finest achievements of cinematographic dissent in the Soviet Union. A subtle critique of Stakhanovism and of socialist rigor, the film tells the story of a percussionist always turning up at the last minute for his orchestra rehearsals, an ode to the revolutionary attributes of idleness and the pleasures of conviviality. Qualities echoed in a plea for orgasmic Marxism proclaimed by one of the protagonist’s acquaintances at a house gathering one evening: “[S]he explained that love was a culmination or refinement of the sexual encounter, and that was the goal of communism as well.” Words one suspects the author himself must have felt close to his sentiments, political and otherwise.