Ahmed Naji is the latest poster-child for freedom of expression in Egypt. Using Life, a surreal illustrated novel (above) told from the future after a man-made sandstorm has buried the city, has earned him a two-year jail sentence for offending public morality. The judge considered the book’s frank depictions of drug use and sex in the kind of explicit language heard every day on the street – which was common in medieval Islamic poetry – to be pornography rather than literature. Ironically, Naji said the incriminating chapter was “an attempt to describe what a happy day would look like for a young man in Cairo”.
Bill Graham was foreign minister in 2003 when Canada infuriated George W. Bush by refusing to join his “coalition of the willing” and invade Iraq. In The Call of the World Graham reveals the intense pressure that Bush put on Jean Chrétien, the prime minister, who turned down the president’s request to come to Ottawa and make his case in person. Canadians, who often feel bullied by their powerful neighbour, are entranced.
Approaching the Old Testament, the Jewish people’s founding document, with fresh eyes seems an almost impossible task in a society in which the Bible is a daily presence in language, culture and politics. In this new, atheistic interpretation of the Book of Books, astrophysicist Elia Leibowitz’s God is the source of creation and human conscience, neither vengeful nor beneficent. Tapping in to an Israeli yearning for a different understanding of their ancient narrative, New Readings in the Old Testament has been topping the non-fiction charts for months.
He may have won the Nobel prize for economics in 2014, but Jean Tirole is hardly a household name. Yet the French have been devouring his latest book, The Economics of the Common Good. Perhaps he can thank Thomas Piketty, France’s other celebrated economist, for prompting broader interest in the dismal science. Tirole leads them deftly through the joblessness, industrial strife and the other dysfunctions of their economy in accessible prose, with scarcely a graph, and without a single equation.
Most Palestinians live outside Palestine. Rabai al-Madhoun, himself a refugee, has turned himself into a chronicler of their exile. His latest novel, Destinies: The Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba, is a deft portrayal of collective tragedies. First his characters flee to Gaza, Britain and America; then, as the tide turns, they weave a tale of love, loss and the random events that shaped so many lives in the Holy Land, both Palestinian and Jewish. The novel won the Arabic Booker award in April.
Five Points, by Peru’s most famous son, Mario Vargas Llosa, is a clever literary thriller involving a blackmailing journalist, the victim, his wife and her lawyer and set during the presidency of Alberto Fujimori, when Peru was being terrorised by the Maoist Shining Path group. The author went on to lose a presidential election against Fujimori and, to the benefit of readers everywhere, returned to the world of letters. Fujimorismo lived on. Fujimori’s daughter Keiko, has just lost the closest election in five decades.