Emissaries and Other Short Stories
Barakunan, January 2023
his is a disturbing book about torture, longing, the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution and what happens when aliens are quietly manipulating your life for their own nefarious purposes. The mood of pain, upset and derangement comes through very strongly but one of the short stories in Emissaries is an unusually graphic depiction of child abuse, which means it takes a strong stomach to be able to read this book all the way through. The rape fantasies are a beach holiday in comparison, and I am not joking. That said, it’s important to emphasise that author Youssef Rakha (full disclosure: one of these stories was first published on a website I also have written for, meaning we certainly have mutual friends) is not interested in making his depictions of pain or violent fantasy pornographic, and it’s a testament to his skill he threads this exceedingly tricky needle exactly right. The trouble of course is that it’s difficult to explain why anyone would want to read something so steeped in suffering. The answer is that its matter-of-fact attitude to these crises is a worthwhile one, and it’s so unusual to see something like this done successfully that they are worth considering.
The stories all take place in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution of 2011, which some of the stories directly reference, such as the lengthy and immature revenge daydream that is “Thus Spoke Che Nawwarah” or in “QAF,” in which the fragments of flesh destroyed by weapons achieve a literal conclusion.
Reluctant to be alone anyway, I resigned myself to the company of this hobbling creature. Casually I asked what was going on. It was then that he stood up and took off his shoes as if in response to my question, beginning the laborious strip show and talking at the same time. I saw heavy socks, then it was too dark, and he was already taking off his pants. All I could think was that his accent reminded me of somewhere, though where I could not tell.
It’s difficult to explain how these stories are gory and hilarious, frightening and realistic at the same time. In the title story, messengers from another world—they are literally aliens, literally reaching inside a young journalist’s brain to pass on messages about the importance of his relationship with his girlfriend—are able to freeze time during a boardroom meeting. Relatable! But also not. Most of the stories are concerned with the psychic aftermath of the revolution, whether that leads a couple to commit vile acts against their small daughter (“The End Girl”) or whether the psychic projection of Nastassja Kinsky (whose name in “Nawwah” is certainly deliberately misspelt to avoid legal repercussions) is sending a young man on spy missions of dubious purpose.
The language of these stories are less interested in pinpoint poetic description—which is a mercy, thanks to all the violence—but mostly in demonstrating the miasma that floats in the air of a city which has experienced suffocating, pervasive violence. Unless you’ve lived it it’s hard to articulate, but when you experienced this for yourself you recognise it instantly. The accuracy of this kind of sickening, self-loathing, helpless terror is the main recommendation of the book. However, many, maybe even most people in the west have lived lives of enough comfort that they have never experienced this for themselves except in short, brutal shocks, and that means it will be difficult for a lot of people to appreciate the scale of Rakha’s achievement. The ability to articulate the unspeakable is a dark skill and it’s not one that most people wish they possessed. And there is a difference between reportage of grim facts and the ability to articulate the sensation of an experience that only comes through art. What Rakha has done here is shine a light onto a section of human misery that has not truly received its due. It’s difficult to take, and a challenging read, but it’s a skilled and skillful one.
Sarah Manvel was born in the USA and raised in four countries on three continents. She is the author of You Ruin it When You Talk (Open Pen, 2020) as well as three other novels seeking a home. She is also a book, film and art critic for outlets including Critic’s Notebook, In Their Own League, Bookmunch and Minor Literatures. A dual Irish-American national, she lives in London.