At Eighty, Novelist Eisa al-Hilu Forgets Something That Never Happened!

At Eighty, Novelist Eisa al-Hilu Forgets Something That Never Happened!

KHARTOUM (Sudanow) - To read Eisa al-Hilu is to read the history of Sudanese narrative, with all its revelations and up and down turns. Eisa the narrator and intellectual is one of the few voices in the history of Arabic narrative whose names were associated with the philosophy of life, both with respect to narrative and criticism.


He is a critic, a story writer and novelist and an earnest researcher in culture. All through his six decades on the literary scene, Eisa had kept a shining name with his literary works; stimulating questions, comparisons and contrasts. Now he is about eighty years old and he still writes the novel, though he chose to sarcastically say that his latest novel’ Forgetting Something That Never Happened’ could be his last. ”I will, instead, work on a long-delayed intellectual issue,” he said.

Renowned Critic Majzoob Aidaroos says:

Many writers and critics had examined the works of story and novel writer Eisa al-Hilu since the publication of his collection the Parrot’s Feathers in 1967.


The late poet Salah Ahmed Ibrahim had considered the collection a birth of a new writer. ”A new young man is coming forward,” wrote Salah.


Critic, Dr. Mohamed al-Hassan Fadlelmawla, story writer Mahmoud Mohamed Madani and poet Omar al-Tayeb al-Doach also wrote important comments about the collection at the time.


Last year novelist and story writer, Dr.Salah Sirrelkhatim published an entire book about al-Hilu’s novels and short stories.


Critic Aamir Mohamed Ahmed is writing a book about al-Hilu’s works.


Many of al-Hilu’s works were published in and outside the Sudan. Al-Sir Khidir has translated some of his stories into English.


Outstanding Egyptian novelist and critic, Dr. Yousif Idris, had made a review of his works in the Beirut- published magazine Alaadab (Literature). Some of his stories were published in the magazine ‘Contemporary Thought’, edited by Egyptian poet Ahmad Abdelmuti Hijazi. Sudanese Novelist Ibrahim Ishaq had also written a critique about his writings.


Al-Hilu has also published the short story collections: The Angel’s Daily Journey, the Body’s Resurrection, I Hide to Look for You and A Red Rose For Mariam’s Sake. He published his novels: Good Morning…Unseen Beautiful Face, The Rose and the Night’s Nightmares and An Elder on the Seesaw. His story: Forgetting What Did Not Happen is now being printed.


Some of his novels, including The Fever of Chaos and Cohesion, The Sky and the Orange, Paradise Uphill and Birds Inlet to the Orchards, were published in series in the local newspapers.


Hilu now oversees the literary supplement of the Arrai al-Am daily newspaper.


He had introduced many important literary names to the Sudanese public within his newspaper articles. He was Editor of Al- Khartoum Magazine during 1992-1995 and had represented Sudan in many external cultural events.


Hilu is one of the pillars of short story and novel writing in Sudan and was selected arbiter of Tayeb Salih Award for Creative Writing. He was previously honored by Abdelkareem Mirghani Cultural Center.


Hilu maintains that creative writing is an industry which should not be based on talent alone. Literary creation has its intellectual aspects and technical preconditions that should be met, beside the talent, he maintains.


Beside his writings in short story and novel, Hilu is one of Sudan’s most outstanding literary critics at the moment.


Sudanow Magazine met with Eisa al-Hliu and came out with this interview:


Sudanow: After all this wide experiment in writing, now that you are about eighty years old, how do you see your novel:” Forgetting Something that Never Happened” in terms of its name and its experiment?


Eisa: Age can define dangerous pathways in writing. As a young man, I was very often confident about a wisdom I gained from my experiment which I thought was the truth, the truth of truths, and the scope of my experiment stops here. What is dangerous about the writing of elders is that it is (also) measured by their confidence in the wisdom of their experiments. I always ask: Which one is factual, the young past or the present? Fearless of dissatisfaction, I have tried to take an adventure in my last novel, with all these experiments in mind. This dissatisfaction accompanies the writer throughout his experiment and if I do the correct thing as a young or old person, the honor of trying is my goal.

Some of his books

Q: You have given your novel (which is now being printed) a name that suggests disagreement, that is forgetting what had not happened. What did you mean by this forgetting? Is it a fear from the experiment or a fear of aging or is it because narrative has its revelations?


A: It is the memory of watershed voices in the history of the Sudan, both old and modern. It is a history rich in what had happened, what had not happened and what should be forgotten. Here I am speaking with the voice of the critic not that of the narrator. It is a formal adventure to devise a manner of narration that keeps the time order and, at the same time, goes there towards the pitfalls in the progress of time. Are these pitfalls in the progress of time the work of the narrator or the novel characters who exist in different and distant times? Yes they exist in distant and different times.


From this, I see in the title an attempt to understand which is more clear” remembering or forgetting? And which of them is the real one: the forgotten event or the one that occurs now?


All these questions may have no answers, because real history, with its quicksand, may be concealed within the narrative’s time frame. That is because the imagination may parallel reality and does not portray it, but attempts to bypass it, to be a proof for it. Which of these evidences is the correct one should be left to the would-be- reader to judge.


Q: How do you choose your titles. There are some writers who write the title first and then base their text upon this title and there are other writers who do not do this?


A: For me the title is always a gateway to a topic or idea related to a topic whose title emerges before it is written down. A title is like life and my relation with it is between the public and the private. It represents the basic step in the general lines that govern the narrative. Similarly is the wide space in which the events of the story or the novel occur. In another candid expression, titles are the themes, the basic thoughts that abstract the basic meanings for you. They are abstracts on which the bricks of story or the novel stand: They incarnate it. There are authors who base their writing on ideas. I am one of these. I can clearly see this in the writings of Alberto Moravia and also those of Jean -Paul Sartre who wrote his novels to simplify existential thought. There are other writers who go the opposite way. They start from real experiments and try to reach the basic theme or idea.


Q: What do you call such writing?


A: I call it philosophical drama. But the other approaches in writing fall under the realistic approach. There are several realisms that are philosophically and critically classified under socialist realism, realistic criticism and photographic realism. We should not forget the romantics under which fall the schools that hold the self in high regard.


Q: What do you call this sort of writing?


A: I call it philosophical drama. But the other approaches in writing are classified under realism. There are so many realisms: the socialist realism, the criticism realism and the photographic realism. But don’t forget the romantics, under which lie all the schools that hold high the self of the novels’ heroes at the expense of the reality around them.


Q: At a certain stage you have said Tayeb Salih was the best ever novelist that no one can come close to. Later on you said the novel was undergoing some renovation. Then you once again said no one can come close to Tayeb Salih?


A: Logically speaking, time cannot be stopped at this or that idea. When I said Salih was the top of the novel, this was at the level of my perception while the world, which is always on the move, may not accept this. I was looking at the realities and when I backed I was looking at the turn of things, for life does not move with human orders. I am quite consistent with my line of thought. I never contradict myself. The second statement was a sort of wish, a signal from me towards what should happen. But the reality is: Salih's novels are the best ever written.


Q: How would you see your experiment that continued for about six decades?


A: My experiment had underwent different stages. Now I look at it and review it. Sometimes I recognize my abilities in their basic sources. Sometimes I find that I had deviated from this basic path without leaving the thought or idea.

Photos from his early days

Q: The 1960s?


A: Looking at this history from the 1960s, I find that I had made myself as a writer through two elements: Instinct and spontaneity as the first element and experiment and experience as the second one. I remember my first publisher in the Dar al-Hayat Publishing Company in Beirut had written on the cover of my book Reesh al-Bababagha’a (Parrot’s Feathers) that “this is a new talent we are presenting to the readers.” He did not say what reader he was referring to: Is he the reader sitting on the margin of the contemporary Arab culture or the readers in the major cultural capitals. It was here that I stopped at the word ’talent’.


Q: Why did you pause at the word ’talent’? Is it for fear on your part that it could have been your first and last experiment? Or because the ceiling of progress may not bypass talent towards experiment?


A: I can’t hide a secret. I stopped very long at the word talent to find that it is purity, nature and expertise. That is why I now look at my experiment as a lack of expertise and a desire to acquire this expertise. For that I started to read much in thought, literary criticism and in the major creative writings. All through I find myself reading in thought and its history, and in different literary genres.


Q: In what way did this extensive reading help you, as a novelist or as a critic?


A: I now ignore every text that used to please me in the past and reconsider it from new different angles. By that I have managed to view my generation with much blame, because we did not work hard. That had inflated our egos sometimes and prevented us from evaluating our experiments with a clear vision.


Q: Don’t you think that this is a sort of humility on your part as a writer?


A: They tell me so. It is my view that whenever a writer lives this humility, he could read himself and the world around him in a good way, a reading which is free from narcissism or exaggeration. Thus he can take hold of the objective framework. If a writer would trace his/her capabilities from the early beginnings, he/she would discover that he/she should have amended his/her process here and there.


Q: Did you revise your previous writings with a critical eye?


A: I remember the publisher of the Dar al-Jeel publishing house have asked me in the early 1980s to prepare my previous works for re-publication. I went to the Sudan Archives and managed to collect many of my works of the 1970s -1980s. After reading those texts, I found that I was keeping wrong memories of them for I thought they were very great. But after re-reading them I discovered that they were not fit for publication at that time. At the time, I remembered the assertion by American writer Ernest Hemingway that what appears from the story is the first third while the remaining two thirds disappear under the water.


Q: Eisa al-Hilu was known as a novelist, a story writer and a critic. Where do you find yourself?


A: Through these tools, I am looking for a text that pushes things forward and avails others with adequate light. That is why I am no longer preoccupied with writing the story or the novel as I did in the past. I now busy myself with intellectual matters. I have found this intellectual experiment to be richer and more profound. May be this is because I am aging and face the questions of death. I don’t fear death, but all joys and small pleasures appear to be positioned in very remote places.


Q: Does this metaphysical intellectual philosophical look represent an emancipation from the world around you?


A: Possibly so, as I see it. Another writer may see otherwise. But free writing is a navigation into these wide and absolute distances in all aspects of creativity. For this I consider writers like the late Mohammad Abdelhai and al-Tijani Saeed had really paused at these questions. Similarly did painter Ahmed Abdela’al. I find the same in critic al-Noor Hamad.


Q: Did you forget narration and short story writing while involved in this thinking?


A: Sometimes I experience small thoughts intertwined in small tales that can be written with beauty and ability but very soon they fade out like burning matches. When I say the story had died, I don’t mean it has declined or lost its glamour. No! Old and new writers are here. But the story has lost its readers.


Q: There are still story writers and readers?


A: I say in the latest years I, as a reader and not a writer, could not find a text that could unveil the complications of this age. In our time the short quick luminous moment has changed. This requires more effort and a wider space. That is why the novel has taken center stage for its ability to dismantle these complications and to express the times that are open towards reality, wounds and crises.


Q: Many questions are being asked about the Sudanese novel and its position among its Arab counterparts?


A: Frankly, there are promising texts in the Arab World, the Sudan and the Third World in general. But the real problem is that novels, particularly in the Sudan, emanate from the verbal heritage, just like folk poetry. If you look at the modern poem in the Sudan you will find that it had succeeded and progressed because it was based on a written heritage. The novel is not what had been said before. It is the way of writing what had been said. The novel is not the meaning. It is the framework that carries the meaning. Language is meant for its very self. It is not meant to communicate the meaning. In the first case it is intransitive and in the second case it is transitive.


Q: The Arab Novel?


A: A close look would show that the great novels have blocked the way. This generation’s writers are standing in the shadow of the big writers. Readings in the international heritage are very scanty. The existential experiences are very week. As I have indicated before, writing springs from two sources: deep life and deep writing. From my follow up of the big Arab writings, I have seen nothing of this, save some names which were established over the years, who are driven by their deep writing.




Sudanow is the longest serving English speaking magazine in the Sudan. It is chartarized by its high quality professional journalism, focusing on political, social, economic, cultural and sport developments in the Sudan. Sudanow provides in depth analysis of these developments by academia, highly ...


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