Amir Tag Elsir’s The Grub Hunter is a novel about who gets to write novels, and the impact of surveillance on literature. In its opening lines, the protagonist tells us “I’ll write a novel. Yes, I will. This is a really strange idea for a retired police agent like me” (1).
This is the story of a former secret service agent, Abdallah Harfash, also known as Farfash, who, has retired after an accident in which his leg is amputated. He then decides to write a novel and starts to visit a coffee shop where intellectuals and would-be writers gather to discuss their work. In this environment, he finds himself the subject of suspicion from this group of people, who are wary of being infiltrated.
I’ve never been a reader, and my imagination is limited, except for practical matters. I’ve never previously stood in front of a bookstore – unless I was shadowing a suspect who entered one, or following up on police reports about banned books.
One of the most compelling characters in the book is R.M, a Christian who owns A’laf, as Harfash tells us, “one of the old, established bookstores in the capital, and who became my friend because I kept him under surveillance for so long, once gave me a book” (1). When Abdallah Harfash requests a book from RM, the tension between Harfash’s previous profession and his present aspiration to write a book come across in the blurred line between fear of the government and love of literature in this scene:
“What do you have against its author?” he asked in an abrasive or hostile tone he wouldn’t have dared to use in the past. For quite a long time, I had written him up for offences serious enough to land him in prison, closed his bookstore for days at a time, and impounded many books that he had counted on to turn a profit, but every time I came back I would find smiling, energetic and cheerful as he raced back and forth between his customers and the kettle in a corner of the store, so he could make Turkish coffee for me with just the right quantity of sugar […] when the Discovery Channel televised him, he spoke at length in his broke English about how cooperative the local government was with him, and even declared that the police had never confiscated a single book from his racks. He was lying, of course (24).
A sustained theme throughout this novel is the exploration how a securitised society, and the suspicion and surveillance in such a society, impacts the imagination. Harfash recalls a novelist who had been imprisoned in a dungeon, where he “spent three barren days that had dried up all his thinking” (121). But spying and reporting on others has also impacted Harfash himself, as his attempts to write fiction reveal. When Harfash presents his “grub” of a novel idea to his mentor, the novelist AT, A.T explains: “What you just read me isn’t the beginning of a novel; it’s a police report”:
He had unmasked me, no doubt…uncovered me…found me out…This was the same report that I had written about the actual stake out more than ten years ago and that could still be found in the file […] it had leapt onto the yellow pages without me being aware of that […] I didn’t want the idea of writing the novel to desert me after I had put so much groundwork into the project. I wasn’t in the service but the cursed parsite of the secret service might still emerge at any time (71)
Harfash acknowledges the limitations of attempting to surveil art, recalling how in his days in the service, he was aware that “Our security agency, no matter how hard it tires, cannot get charges to stick against this theatre’s directors who vilify the nation, disparage the homeland […] and stick their tongues out without anyone catching on” (120). He seems genuine in his attempt to change sides, to become one of the artists, describing how he “wanted to see the novelist S.A as a writer and not as a ‘mark,’ and her companions as respectable men of culture rather than suspects” (126).
It is only at the vey end of this slim novella that the twist of the narrative is revealed, and we discover that the novel about the attempt to write a novel which we have been reading is in fact a story not narrated by its first person narrator Harfash, but written by his mentor the novelist A.T, who, at the end, returns him to his original work, because of the neatness and the symmetry of this ending:
By the way – don’t be angry when at the end of the novel you see that I’ve had you return once more to the service. You infiltrate the group of people who knew you as a writer and someone who loves writing, then you write reports about them […] I thought that made a really good ending (133)