Tawfik speaks about the Cerebellum and his avatar


 

M.M. Tawfik is the author of three volumes of short stories in Arabic, from which a selection was made and published in English in Cairo in 1997 under the title The Day the Moon Fell, and three novels, including Murder in the Tower of Happiness (AUC Press, 2008), and most recently candygirl, translated and published by the AUC Press.

In this interview about his latest novel, Tawfik addresses the issues of fate, human attachment, freedom, and virtual reality, and how they shape his characters’ lives.

AUC Press: In candygirl, the main character, the Cerebellum, falls in love with an avatar named candygirl, an eternal, perfectly-shaped virtual beauty, the cyber alter ego of an otherwise double-chinned, obese library assistant from Nebraska. Is it the simplicity and clarity that he associates with cyber love that draws him to this kind of relationship?

 

M.M.Tawfik: The Cerebellum is hardly unique in his quest for a woman of perfect beauty and absolute sensuality. In a way, human culture has always idolized women’s beauty and composure. The heroines of our fairy tales have set standards that flesh and blood women can never attain. They stand out in stark contrast with the ugly and evil witches and sorceresses that haunt many a child’s dreams. Ironically, in both cases, these states of perfection, or imperfection, are perpetual. In short, women’s beauty has been reduced to symbolize the best and worst in human nature. But the Cerebellum has taken this tendency a few steps further. He has actually come to perceive candygirl’s reality to be more genuine than that of the flesh and blood women who share his building and neighborhood. Thus, his relationship with candygirl offers an effective escape from his depressing reality. We should keep in mind that the Cerebellum has never enjoyed ‘normal’ emotional or sexual relations with women. Perhaps he has come to associate this deficit with the opposite sex’s imperfections rather than his own shortcomings. Only candygirl’s perfection can allow him to cross the hitherto forbidden boundaries of sexuality. We should also keep in mind that he can only court candygirl by adopting the avatar that he has appropriately named biceps. In other words, it is not only candygirl’s perfection that he finds irresistible. He is attracted most of all to his own transformation into the equally perfect biceps. As his character evolves, it becomes harder and harder for him to distinguish between these two states of his own existence.

 

AUC Press: Does the Cerebellum, a genius scientist, carry a set of dice around in his pockets essentially because of his passion for the law of probability? Are they a metaphor for life's fate?

 
M.M.Tawfik: Mathematics, to the Cerebellum, is like music to Mozart. It is not merely a science at which he is adept, but the most accurate representation of existence. It presents, in its own vein, yet another parallel universe. Just as the laptop is his gateway to the virtual world, his dice are his gateway to the perfect universe of mathematics. Within the realm of mathematics, the law of probability carries a particularly meaningful message. Indeed people have always been puzzled by the vagaries of fate. Like a gambler so mesmerized by the whims of chance that he gets physically addicted to challenging it to a duel he is destined to lose, the Cerebellum finds life’s twists and turns so unpredictable that he can hardly stop himself from searching for some mathematical explanation that would make some sense of it all. We may also note that the Cerebellum has been reduced to a state of utter dispossession. He may be forced to abandon even his few meager possessions at any moment. The dice, however, he always keeps in his pocket.    
 
 
AUC Press: What is meant by "science is a boat that is destined to sink"? You make reference to this image various times throughout the novel.
 
M.M.Tawfik: Like most writers, I like to think of my works as dense and multileveled, as works of art that defy exact definition. One of the prisms through which this novel can be seen is that of Egypt’s political reality. The theme of a sinking boat has been understood by many readers as a reference to the gradual disintegration of the Mubarak regime in its final years. (The Arabic original was published in mid-2010, about seven months before the regime collapsed. Naturally the writing and publishing cycle started a few years earlier).  The final sentence of chapter 12, “The boat has sunk, Captain”—which was copied verbatim from the black box recording of the last moments of the sunken ferryboat Alsalam 98—is pretty unambiguous in this regard.

There is also the sense of lost opportunity and unfulfilled promises that plagues all modern day Egyptians. I have explored this aspect at length in previous works, in which the Cerebellum appeared in more or less secondary roles. But here, he perceives the country’s political and social disintegration in cosmic terms. Man’s efforts to create order in the midst of a chaotic universe are bound to fail. Science clearly predicts that. Moreover, science itself is only another human invention and thus ultimately doomed. 

On a more personal level, the Cerebellum is a child who refuses to grow up. In the two previous novels in which he appears, he is free to lead his unique childish—almost farcical—existence. This time, he has to come to grips with his mortality.  
 
 
AUC Press: Do you believe, like the Cerebellum, that in the "virtual world freedom is absolute"?
 
M.M.Tawfik: Ever since humans walked the earth, we have been overwhelmed by the feeling that there is more to our world than what our senses can directly perceive. There are different states or levels of existence. Invisible powers shape our destinies. There are even invisible parallel worlds inhabited by fairies, goblins, demons, ghouls, jinn…. These beliefs lie at the heart of art and religion, the fundamental cornerstones of our worldviews. If I had to choose one factor to separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom, to which we ultimately belong, I would point out our inability to accept our state of existence as final. We all yearn for a state of existence defined by absolute freedom from our earthly limitations. When we fail to achieve it, we seek solace in fantasy. We thus become dependent on our illusions and delusions. Thus the Cerebellum’s quest for a purer, more harmonious state of existence in virtual reality, one in which he is absolutely free, is just his way of expressing a perfectly normal human need. It happens to suit his temperament more than the supernatural realms preferred by others. Although I share the Cerebellum’s yearning, I do not believe absolute freedom can be found in virtual reality or anywhere else. Our shackles are internal, much of our torture self-inflicted. We will carry our moral deficiencies with us to every new frontier we conquer.  

 
AUC Press: Interwoven in the plot, you manage to address various serious topics in the novel such as religion, torture, human trafficking, and the condition of women in Egypt. One of the characters, Condoleezza, a 23-year-old girl who was raped by her cousin as a teenager, works as a prostitute in the back streets of Cairo. Do you write your novels around topics that seem important to you or are they later fitted into the main plot?
 
M.M.Tawfik: To be perfectly honest, I find it impossible to clearly define the writing process. On this question, I share the dilemma that has troubled mathematicians for millennia: are they really inventing their equations or merely uncovering formulations that pre-exist in nature? I tend to believe that artistic creation is a quest for balance in a given medium. It is fundamentally an exercise in abstraction, where meaning is secondary to artistic considerations. Explaining comes much later, after the work is finished, when the danger of contamination is no longer there. What I’m trying to say is that at the time of writing I’m only interested in shaping the story. I’m looking for a book that I would enjoy reading. I do not start with a message or a theme that I need to relay, but rather a state of mind, a state of existence that I need to give form to.  
 
 
AUC Press: The Cerebellum believes that "mathematics is the perfect world." Is that where he dies and why you end the novel that way—with an equation?
 
M.M.Tawfik: The challenge of the Cerebellum’s life is to make sense of this chaotic world. Mathematics is his faithful tool to this end. Or perhaps, he is the faithful servant of mathematics. In any case, he remains faithful to his quest until the very end. As he gasps for his last breath, he desperately needs to make some sense out of the events of his last few minutes, or of his entire life, or his nation’s modern history for that matter. And this equation provides that answer to all of the above. At heart, this is a futuristic forward-looking work, it does not dwell on the recent past with its terrible events, but on the hope that the future brings. It tries to explore the main moral challenges that humanity will need to grapple with in the twenty-first century. Otherwise, the Cerebellum would have been completely defeated. I like to think that his is a glorious death. 
 

AUC Press: Where do you get your ideas for your novels?

M.M.Tawfik: I never look for ideas. They look for me. 

 

To read more about this new Egyptian novel and order it, click here.

 

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