Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reading Notes: Flaubert (2) Landscapes with Slaves

Continuing my literary excursion with Flaubert, the slavery connotations disturb me far more than the prostitutes or the sexualized interpretations of the dancing. The dancers (almeh and bardashes) appear to have some agency, (Kuchuk Hanem employs her own servants and keeps her money in the bank), and are worth conversing with in Flaubert's view. The slavery system depicted--the ships from Nubia, the older women hired to console the young female slaves embarking on their dismal futures, and the man who got away--haunts because the people exploited have no voices, no direct interaction with Flaubert. Flaubert, in his southern most jaunt in Upper Egypt, sees a camel running through the desert with a Nubian man tied to him. Flaubert surmises that the slave is being pulled to freedom by the animal.

Flaubert reports these sights. The fact that he reports them perhaps says what he is able to at that time. But the cool reportage is unnerving mixed in with the detail of an idealized landscape and laced with the specificity that would become part of the future novelist's trademark:
Sunset over Medinet Habu: The mountains are dark indigo (on the Medinet Habu side); blue over dark gray, with contrasting horizontal stripes of purplish red in the clefts of the valleys. The palms are black as ink, the sky is red, the Nile has the look of a lake of molten steel.
When we arrived off Thebes, our sailors were drumming on their darabukehs, the mate was playing his flute, Khalil was dancing with his castanets; they broke off to land.
It was then, as I was enjoying those things, and just as I was watching the wave-crests bending under the wind behind us, I felt a surge of solemn happiness that reached out toward what I was seeing, and I thanked God in my heart for having made me capable of such joy; I felt fortunate at the thought, and yet it seemed to me that I was thinking of nothing: it was a sensuous pleasure that pervaded my entire being."

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