Beer in the Snooker Club, by Waguih Ghali
This 1964 novel, recently re-released by Serpent’s Tail, sketches out the concerns of a generation of Egyptians torn between old and new political allegiances. The country’s confusion and contradictions following the 1952 coup d’état are neatly embodied in the novel’s narrator, Ram, who is a product of his time and class but, equally, a typical young man torn between an awareness of the sufferings of others and an urge to live his own life as fully as possible.
The young characters live in Egypt and London in the 1950s, a time when relations between the two countries are fraught and rapidly changing, from the coup to the Suez crisis. These events form the backdrop to Ram’s story, but the effects they have on his everyday life are the real thrust of the tale. Beer in the Snooker Club is certainly political, yet it never points the reader towards one political stance – that would be too easy, and the book shows repeatedly that all allegiances are complex, all viewpoints contradictory.
The novel is rich with insight about the seductive nature of political activism, particularly for young people. Ram becomes politicised through the books and newspapers he reads, but he struggles to know what to do with this energy. For him, as for many of us, caring about something is an exciting sensation, and he is inspired as much by the lifestyle his new interest provides as by the politics themselves: ‘I would feel passionately angry about the cruelty and injustices I heard about, but this passionate anger was itself enjoyable’, he explains. Unfortunately Ram is more often apathetic than inspired: he votes then forgets who he voted for, and often sacrifices politics for drink, gambling and women.
Ghali’s book is often very funny, painting a portrait of a society in transition that’s as confused about its identity as Ram is about his. The young man’s entire social sphere is characterised by confusion and denial, from his wealthy, older relatives who hold onto purchased titles that no longer mean a thing, to the angry young men and women who visit poor villages to discover the ‘real’ Egypt. In fact, as Ram realises, the country cannot easily be categorised: at once home to fellahs and ‘a place where middle-aged people play croquet’, it is also often rather dull, and Ghali artfully captures this banality with deliciously slow-paced conversations between Ram and his family and peers.
The book is refreshingly unsentimental about the cultural confusion that follows the years Ram spends in London. The sojourn allows him – and the reader – to reflect on the interplay between Egypt and Europe at a time when empires are shrinking and power is shifting. Yet there is a sense that their feelings of rootlessness are symptomatic of a wider malaise. Like Egypt, Britain is corrupt, confused and often rather tedious, and Ram recalls his time there with the cynicism that characterises all of his narration. His whole life is a slow, meandering journey as he tries different lifestyles on for size, and this is as much about age, and class, as it is about post-colonial politics.
It is this universal theme that assures the longevity of Beer in the Snooker Club. The novel provides an unusual perspective on a fascinating time; but, as an engaging satire on class and youthful idealism, and a reflection on the relationship between local worlds and wider political shifts, it is also as relevant now as it was nearly 50 years ago. It is a book very worth returning to, and certainly worth discovering for the first time.