Return to Brian Kiteley's home page

Reviews of I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing, published in 1996

Michael Gorra, a professor of English at Smith College:

I Know Many Songs, but I Cannot Sing is set in Cairo on a night during Ramadan and follows the wanderings of a young American teacher and an Armenian actor as they wander through the city from dusk to dawn.  It is in many ways a very different book than Still Life with Insects—marked by a radical change in subject and setting, and also I think by an enormous growth in ambition.  Yet there’s continuity as well, for in each book Brian Kiteley is concerned with the taxonomy of experience, with the different ways in which it can be organized—no longer by insects of course, still less by conventions of linear narrative, but instead by the special arrangements of cities, of the Cairo that is the book’s main character.

Songs is written in a prose that is perfectly plain, absolutely clear, and yet richly enigmatic at once.  It hardly seems like an American novel at all, and it certainly doesn’t seem like the kind of novel that young Americans especially write about living in a foreign country.  In Kiteley’s hands the Cairo cityscape on this night of Ramadan becomes a carnival in which time seems to have stopped and all social roles are suspended, in which both the city and its inhabitants are perpetually changing their shape and their substance.  But what’s most remarkable about this novel is the way it makes vivid this hallucinatory reality without in the least exoticizing either Cairo itself or its people.  It is a bold attempt to deal with issues of colonialism, mimicry, and otherness that have engaged so much of the most important fiction being written today and that yet figure so little in most of contemporary American fiction.

Dan Cryer, Newsday, January 29, 1996:

BRIAN KITELEY writes the briefest of novels.  His first, Still Life with Insects (1989), came to all of 114 pages.  His new one, I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing, stretches the number to 190 by using lots of white space and a tiny page size.  But rarely has there been a novelist for whom each word counts for so much.  Kiteley's is a prose of extraordinary conciseness, precision and poetic intensity.  It is alive with resonant images and startling scenes.

Still Life forced us to pay attention to the mysteries of an ordinary man who would be derided as a failure, but Kiteley's second novel is more complex, more enigmatic.  It seems to be about the pleasures and conundrums of life in Egypt, about an American's being both at home and at sea while abroad, about the odd configurations of friendship and love, and, in its sly self-reflexiveness, about the art of storytelling itself.

Ib, the novel's unconventionally named central character, describes himself as "an American teaching Middle Eastern history to Egyptian students in an English-language university."  We know little more about him than that.  Kiteley's narrative strategy is designed to keep readers as off-balance as his protagonist.  "Ib still misreads simple images," the book begins.  "The shadow cast by a sleeping child is the family cat back home in Massachusetts...."

The story takes place during one afternoon and night of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day and feast at night, when "it's normal to be inside out and upside down."  Ib's peregrinations across Cairo seem disconnected and disoriented, as though he's moving through a Middle-Eastern Alice-in-Wonderland landscape.  "Everything that can happen," the author notes, "does happen in Egypt."  In truth, we gradually learn, Ib is reeling from bad news--the recent death of his stepfather back home and the savage beating of an Egyptian friend.  He fears his attachment to this woman may have imperiled her with her family, who do not look kindly on consorting with foreigners, especially men.

Equally disconcerting for Ib is the stranger who is intent on following him.  Though this Gamal claims to want to befriend him--and the nocturnal Cairo of Ramadan does have the spontaneous ebullience of New Orleans at Mardi Gras--Ib suspects he may be a government spy. In any event, Gamal seems to know everything that Ib is doing.  Before long, he has introduced Ib to his wife and in-laws, enjoyed some laughs and escorted him all over town.  Gamal is as garrulous as he is mysterious, eventually confessing to being "a quick-change artist, a slippery-tongued mimic who does not know his own voice or face."  He's also, he eventually reveals, an Armenian by origins and a theater critic by trade.

Kiteley's gallery of supporting characters also has a cosmopolitan feel.  Ib's pal, Lena, is the product of a Dutch mother and Egyptian father. Gamal's sister-in-law, Ruqayyah, is a Christian-born Muslim convert.  A political prisoner, visited by Gamal and Ib, quotes Salman Rushdie and Fred MacMurray.  Charles Mattimore, a British snob with starched collar and arch putdowns of the locals, seems a remnant from the age of empire.  Yet, he is also enthusiastically anti-American and pro-Palestinian.

Kiteley's richly evoked Cairo is a city where the dust storms (hamsiin) make you "taste the sky," where the odors of "unwashed bodies and donkey manure" are unavoidable. In the old sections, streets can't make up their minds which direction to go.  Amid skyscrapers, you can buy American potato chips, but the phones don't work.

"I know many songs, but I cannot sing”--Gamal explains to Ib that this is the traditional beginning for Armenian tales.  So as they wander from coffeehouse to marketplace to prison (to interview a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an anti-government group), Gamal is forever telling stories while Ib transcribes them.  Some are autobiographical, others allegorical.  All of them suggest that we are defined (inspired or imprisoned) by the stories we tell ourselves.  Something is always gained in the translation, as well as lost; so notes Kiteley's prisoner, paraphrasing Salman Rushdie.  This much is true for Ib, busy translating himself across national and cultural boundaries.  Lost for the time being, he's surely hard on the trail of finding himself.  Filled with quirky juxtapositions and odd changes of key, this is a novel that indeed sings--quietly, if assuredly.

Glen Weldon, The Iowa Review, 1997:

Despite its slim size, Brian Kiteley's second novel finds time to let its characters sit in cafes and think—nay, muse—about foreignness, about mistranslation and misapprehension, about writing and storytelling and subjective truth, for God's sake.  It is Ramadan in Cairo; the faithful fast all day, feast all night, and shamble distractedly through the wreckage of their sleep cycles.  Kiteley captures this place and time in all its logy chaos, its pervasive and fitful fuzziness of mind, with prose that is rigorously lucid, wondrously clear.  He creates a Cairo at once vividly available to the senses and steadfastly elusive to reason....

Kiteley depicts the shadowy streets, the genial diffidence of the people, but what sets his prose apart is the purchase it affords the reader on Ib’s perceptions.  In spare, economic language, he establishes Ib’s uneasy mixture of familiarity and bemusement, his affection for—and frustration with—his world.  We come to intuit the sense of hesitant isolation afflicting his life; he is at once home and not-home.  Despite his years as a resident, he is forever a foreigner in a city of inscrutable mystery.

The author chooses to demonstrate this in a way which seems, at first, rather counter-intuitive—by doling out the expository stuff in an almost miserly fashion.  We see lb only at a great distance, through the scrim of his confusion and his (quite considerable) memory lapses; even at novel’s end, we know very little about him, and what little we have come to know derives almost exclusively from his dealings with others.  So, for example, when he meets Gamal, an Egyptian actor who teases him by playing various practical jokes over the course of the night, assuming different disguises and spreading rumors about Ib’s past, the reader gets the un mistakable impression that lb is also creating a character—himself—with every word he speaks.  The fact that this doesn’t matter, that we implicitly give ourselves over to lb long before we know very much about him, is testament to Kiteley’s deft, humane characterization...

The triumph of this novel [is] that these characters manage to brush up against some pretty large abstractions like foreignness and narrative truth without compromising their roundedness and vitality.  This is not, luckily for the reader, merely a novel of ideas.  Kiteley’s people are simply too well wrought, too expertly achieved, to let themselves sit passively by, mouthing stories and theories and thought experiments.  And that’s important, because Ib’s Cairo is, after all, a dire, intriguing place.  Trusted guides vanish, only to reappear with different names.  Strangers accuse each other of dark crimes.  Personal histories come into doubt, truth is mutable.  Thankfully, I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing has at its wise heart a cadre of strong, believable characters who remain compelling against even so exotic, and wondrous, a setting.

Judith Caesar, North Dakota Review, 1997:

At first I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing seems like an exotic, surreal, picaresque account of an American's night in a foreign city.  The plot pulls the reader forward; we want to find out who these people are and how to place them.  We want to know why they are acting as they are, and how they know what they know.  But what follows is a novel of ideas that explores the multiplicity of identity and reality.  The setting is not merely exotic because the novel concerns the the difficulties of understanding other cultures, other values, other realities.  The events that seem mysterious and magical have a plausible explanation within these other realities.  And yet Kiteley also explores the limits of human understanding, specifically one's ability to understand what is outside one's own direct experience.  In its sheer density and complexity, I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing resembles that classic post-modern novella, The Crying of Lot 49.  And yet Kiteley's themes are all his own.

Pablo Conrad, The Village Voice Literary Supplement, March 1996:

Kiteley is not writing about enchantment.  For all its frustrating disjunctions and apparent illogic, this novel is strangely concrete.  His Cairo blossoms, not least in the heightened perceptions of food as the day's fast draws to a close: "two boys fly by shouldering hot metal pans of bubbling eggplant casserole...  The smell that lingers in their path briefly blurs the scenery."  Gamal engages [the narrator] Ib in a game of story-telling—joined later by others—narrating incidents and dreams that Ib copies down afterward.  The longest is a quietly frightening account of the accidental poisoning of Gamal's four-year-old daughter Annahid, and shares the novel's title.  Such intimacies draw Ib further and further into Gamal's circle; and at the novel's close they all gather outside the city, exhausted, just before sunrise.  The gentleness and elements of love in their stories echoes Kiteley's evident concern with small details of relationships and personal interaction.  However disconcerting at first, the effect is finally compelling.  In the acknowledgments to this slim volume, the author notes he "wrote this book in part on postcards to dozens of friends and family members," adding, "I appreciated everyone's forbearance."  This strange, rewarding novel is steeped in that sort of intimacy.

Publishers Weekly, November 27, 1995:

Again demonstrating the facility he showed in his well-received debut, Still Life With Insects, Kiteley here offers another entrancing miniature, which pairs two dissimilar outcasts in contemporary Cairo.  Ib, an expatriate American historian and translator finds his easygoing lifestyle disrupted by Gamal-Leon, an Armenian theater critic and drama teacher raised in Cairo.  Gamal spies on the rattled American, follows him everywhere, and plays practical jokes intended to challenge Ib's preconceptions of Egyptians and the Middle East.  Their friendship is a duet of mutual cultural misunderstandings played out during the last weeks of Ramadan, the month-long Muslim holy period of daytime fasting and nighttime feasting.  Kiteley compellingly evokes the tensions of contemporary Egypt: its jarring juxtapositions of antiquity and Western pop culture; the million homeless refugees who camp out on the streets and in the parks of Cairo; the ubiquitous police informers who record ordinary citizens' conversations.  His polyglot characters are complex.  Ib is anguished at the recent death of his Dutch stepfather, whom Ib's mother divorced so that she could remarry Ib's father. Ib feuds with his sisters, who are jealous because he received his stepfather's entire inheritance.  (Ib is a Danish name akin to Jacob, the biblical twin who persuaded his brother, Esau, to part with his inheritance.)  Meanwhile, Gamal, an Armenian Christian, wrestles with his unhappy marriage to a Coptic Egyptian whose sister, a convert to Islam, married a Muslim terrorist now in jail.  Kiteley's motley circle of expatriates lends a cosmopolitan flavor to an exquisitely wrought mosaic.

From Library Journal:

A combination of a Kafka novel, Robert Altman movie, and psychedelic record album, this strange, dreamy little novel from the author of the well-regarded Still Life with Insects (Graywolf, 1993) takes on themes of inversion, foreignness, and communications breakdown.  Set in Cairo during Ramadan (the Muslim festival during which participants fast during the day and feast by night), the tale unfolds as an American known only as Ib is joined more or less purposefully by an Armenian named Gamal-Leon (who eventually deconstructs his own name: a "quick-change artist, a slippery tongued mimic who does not know his own voice or face") to visit playhouses, executive office parties, a prison.  All these activities are overcast with a significance not totally apparent.  Kiteley offers an elusive, hypnotic, even hallucinogenic novel about being as well as the mysteries of being.  Highly recommended for literature collections serving sophisticated readers (Robert E. Brown).

Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1995:

Things begin as Ib (a Danish derivation, one learns, of Jacob) returns to Cairo from Massachusetts and his stepfather's funeral.  It's the last week of Ramadan, when daylong fasting produces giddiness and a touch of the surreal—perfectly suited to Kiteley's narrative, where things often feel half true, are mentioned but then forgotten, or start and seem never to conclude.  Ib gets latched onto at the outset by a hyper-energetic actor and writer named Gamal, of Armenian background, who remains Ib's companion from first page to last—rushing through unknown streets, from one cafe to another, to a theater for rehearsal, to visit Gamal's parents-in-law, to a prison for an ''interview'' with a jailed fundamentalist, and finally to a country house on desert's edge, where, at dawn, the story ends, with symbols, incidents, and words fluttering down slowly in a pitch-perfect, exquisite close.  For some, patience may be needed in getting to that end through the interwoven uncertainties of this poetic and oriental tale, but to be enjoyed along the way are the amusing Tory, Charles Mattimore; the beautiful Safeyya and Ruqayyah, wife and sister-in-law of Gamal; Annahid, Gamal's four-year-old daughter, who eats a poison plant but lives to tell the tale; and, not least, the perfectly toned non-stories told throughout (as per title), mainly by Gamal, and written down by Ib, an activity appropriate to '''the holiest night of Ramadan, when the archangel Gabriel first whispered the word of God to Mohammad.'''  Not as surefooted at the start as toward the end: but, in all, a rare and lovely treasure of feelings and words from a writer who's very far from the ordinary indeed.

Return to Brian Kiteley's home page