The Rise of the Global Novelist

When Cities of Salt, an Arabic novel by Abdelrahman Munif, was published in translation in 1988, John Updike reviewed it for The New Yorker. “It is unfortunate,” Updike remarked, “given the epic potential of his topic, that Mr. Munif, a Saudi born in Jordan, appears to be—though he lives in France and received a Ph.D. in oil economics from the University of Belgrade—insufficiently Westernized to produce a narrative that feels much like what we call a novel. His voice is that of a campfire explainer.”

Updike was writing near the end of the Cold War, confident in his pronouncements about the novel, the West, and about border-challenging writers like Munif, whose father was Saudi, mother Iraqi, and who at different points of his life held Algerian, Yemeni, and Iraqi passports. Stripped of his Saudi nationality and having fallen afoul of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Munif wrote Cities of Salt in France. Of the fact that the novel, with its critique of American oil corporations and Arab oligarchies, was banned in Saudi Arabia, Updike had only this to say: “The thought of novels being banned in Saudi Arabia has a charming strangeness, like the thought of hookahs being banned in Minneapolis.”

It is hard to recall a foreign novel being greeted with such hostility in an American mainstream publication in the decades that followed the end of the Cold War. Foreign writers might still be considered strange or different, and they might not be covered at all. But even the notoriously elitist, insular establishment of book reviewers in New York did not see their novels as completely out of place in a world rapidly being shaped by globalization. In an era of cheap air travel, digital communications, consumerism, worldwide urbanization, and the dominance of English—all overseen by the United States as the world’s single remaining imperial power—readers, editors, and critics found it easy to welcome works by Haruki Murakami or Orhan Pamuk and the snapshots of foreign life they reveal.

Read more: New Republic

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