Sun on a Cloudy Day
By Hanna Mina
Translated Bassam Frangieh and Clementina Brown
Passeggiata Press, 1997, 191 pp
In his introduction to Hanna Mina’s “Sun on a Cloudy Day,” the translator, Bassam Frangieh, notes that this book needs to be read more than once to be fully appreciated. This suggestion may or may not be true, but “Sun on a Cloudy Day” certainly needs to be approached, especially by the American reader, with a great deal of care. The use of a highly poetic and formal language, the somewhat surreal disclosure of the plot, and the questionable treatment of woman could all potentially present roadblocks toward appreciating this novel. But for a sensitive, astute reader, this personal and political “coming of age” tale, written by one of the greatest living Arab novelists, offers a powerful glimpse of the passion which allows humans to revolt against the most oppressive circumstances.
Set during the French Mandate period in Syria, just prior to Syrian Independence in 1941, “Sun on a Cloudy Day” depicts the inner conflicts of the narrator, a wealthy young man who is instinctually at odds with his family and class. His family members are portrayed as complacent and valueless, preserving their decadent habits and attitudes out of sheer egotism. The young man, however, is full of enthusiasm for life. It is his deep longing for sincerity (and not necessarily political commitment) that leads him away from the safety of his sheltered family “castle.” But once he comes into contact with the real conditions of the city, the man is forced to confront the cruelty and hypocrisy of his father, whose allegiance is clearly with the French occupiers. The story chronicles the cloudy and tormented path which the young man follows toward autonomy from the tyranny of his father’s will.
The plot consists of a simple motif: the narrator, age 18, becomes infatuated with music and seeks out a violin and then an oud instructor. Because he is fickle and dilettantish, he moves from instructor to instructor, until finally he falls in with the Tailor, a master oud musician who lives in the most disreputable and poor part of the city. The Tailor immediately recognizes the youth’s poetic temperament and becomes his mentor, calling him “a flower in a field of thorns.” This is the first of many indications that the Tailor is also a radical nationalist, staunchly opposed to the ruling class and French domination.
In the course of their musical encounters, which are rife with story-telling and philosophizing, the young man learns and perfects the dagger dance, a fiery and dangerous gypsy/peasant dance. He performs the stunning dance in a public festival, much to the consternation of his family, who realize the symbolic power of such a move. His father, mother, and sister only dance the Tango in the Casino (a private club); and his parents are horrified that their well-bred son is cavorting with the underclass. The young man’s unrelenting choice of the dagger dance becomes the primary symbol of his rebellion. Another facet of his defiance concerns his attraction to the secretive and beautiful “woman with black eyes” who turns out to be a prostitute and also an underground radical. His family would prefer, of course, that he marry his meek, piano playing cousin who adores him.
Much of the novel, written in the first person, is a description of the narrator’s despair and confusion as he travels the painful rift between these very different worlds. When he is at home with his family, or with his cousin (with whom he has a brief affair) he feels depressed and confined by a sense of guilt and duty. The whole ambiance of his home is cast in a dim, oppressive light. His family members could have been taken straight out of a Fellini film (“La Dolce Vita”), exuding emptiness and flaccidity. His mother and sister are depicted as spineless and easily manipulated. By contrast, when the youth frequents the “underworld” he feels a growing sense of love and kinship with these very real people, especially the proud woman with black eyes, who sees in this young dagger-dancer the only man worthy of her bed. Throughout most of the novel we are led through the murky nuances of his inner torment as he makes his way back and forth between the two rigidly opposed castes. Meanwhile the youth’s father is becoming more and more angry with the Tailor for leading his son astray. It is the tragic outcome of this particular conflict which leads to the narrator’s final renunciation of his father and class.
The poetic, often mystical language of the book, which is interspersed with biblical quotes from the Song of Solomon, mirrors the intense mood of the narrator’s ambiguous situation. The inner turmoil of this man in turn mirrors the political torment of a torn, occupied nation.
Mina succeeds in the Marxist project of showing how the individual is not only influenced but even formed by the social realities around him. But it must be understood that this is far from being a didactic, polemical text. The politics are only revealed in the most subtle, almost surreal manner. Like a glove being slowly turned inside out to reveal the lining, the theme of class oppression and revolt is at first just a hint, then a glimpse. By slow degrees the full hand is brought to light. Just as the narrator must discover through a painful process the truth about his life, so too the reader gradually sees that the Tailor is not just a tailor, but an outspoken advocate for the poor. We find out that the narrator’s ideal woman, the woman that he keeps dreaming of, is simply the woman who lives in the basement – “the woman with the black eyes.” And that she is not just a low prostitute, but a fiercely independent fighter, as revolutionary as the Tailor. Slowly the reader comes to see that by even choosing to frequent “the other side of town” the young man has made a choice. In such a divided city, the act of befriending ordinary people is considered an act of insurrection. And he has chosen to dance a “gypsy dance.”
There is a moment, a clear shining moment, when the young man dances, “beats the earth to wake her up.” All of the people in the district are watching and clapping, mesmerized. The earth awakens. The youth is at one with the people, the music, the Tailor, the Tambourine Player. It is a moment of pure living, of living according to the moment; and because of the danger of this dance each movement and each action is crucial. In this instant of truth all the former cloudiness of murky intentions, guilt, and thwarted desires burns off like a morning fog and we are face to face with the burning flash of the Real. Indeed it is a mystical moment and the Tailor’s music tells him, “O my son, learn how to play for the people...Tell them they are masters of this universe, that the universe is made of you, and everything in it is for you.” In this powerful and beautiful scene lies the meaning of the title, “Sun on a Cloudy Day”: that the potential for an awakening, for a revolt, for passionate and truthful living is hidden within all of us (even the son of a rich man). If one has the courage to act, his (or her) fiery soul is capable of cutting through all the haze of hypocrisy and shadowy alliances.
One aspect of “Sun on a Cloudy Day” which will trouble many readers is Mina’s treatment of women. Most of the women in the novel–the sister, the mother, the Tailor’s wife–are portrayed as shallow and cowardly. One of the main characters, the timid cousin “who wears glasses,” is compared at various times in the book to a chicken, a rabbit, a turtle, a child, a small bird, and even a duck. (One might also be annoyed at Mina’s over reliance on metaphors and similes.) This cousin embodies the image of the traditional woman in love: adoring, fawning, waiting for Prince Charming’s kiss. But Mina’s condescending view of these women must be analyzed in the light of class consciousness. He seems to be making more of a comment on the inability of these aristocratic women to confront the inherent evil of their privilege, which is enforced by violence. There is one woman character, however, who truly redeems the book and she is the “woman with black eyes.” In the end, she remains the heroine of the novel. Despite her lowly station in life, she is free. She respects herself and demands respect. Most of all she is capable of loving for love’s sake, not out of fear or convenience.
“Sun on a Cloudy Day” may be a political novel, but it is seen through the eyes of a political novice and neophyte. The young man’s journey towards the side of justice begins simply through his sincere interest in music. He is not concerned about economics, re-distribution of wealth, Marxist-Leninist principles. Out of a strong instinct for life, he reacts against the corruption and deathly emptiness of his social milieu. He rejects the environment of Casino-goers, Tango-dancers, marriages of convenience, the bored faces of those who live only to uphold a moribund concept of tradition. Because the story is told in this way, by this young narrator who struggles and somehow succeeds in overcoming his class belonging, the novel is terrifically optimistic. And because the seed for his awakening is the seed of music, poetry, passion, and love for the underground woman, we can read “Sun on a Cloudy Day” as an attempt to reconcile revolutionary principles with their origins in the human desire for spiritual satisfaction. The two translators, Bassam Frangieh and Clementina Brown, have done an admirable job in bringing this lyrical testimony into the English language.
This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol.4, no. 24, Summer 1998).
Copyright (c) 1998 by Al Jadid