Yusuf Idris’s “The Chair Carrier”–Symbolic double entendres from sentence to sentence

First, let me apologize for having been away for so long from posting.  I went away to a lovely lake, Lake Champlain, for the July 4th holiday, and some of me didn’t come back right away (mainly, my heart, which is in love with lakeshore trees and breezes in green leaves, and widely various birdsong in the forest, and good times with family and friends).  But I’m ready now to re-enter my daily life, and today’s post is on a short story of Yusuf Idris, a writing physician from Egypt.  The story is called “The Chair Carrier.”  This story, in fact, shows what the whole necessity for revolution and change in society is about, and it does so at the sentence level, symbolically.

Basically, the story is a sort of surreal one, and here is how it begins:  “You can believe it or not, but excuse me for saying that I saw him, met him, talked to him and observed the chair with my own eyes.  Thus I considered that I had been witness to a miracle.  But even more miraculous–indeed more disastrous–was that neither the man, the chair, nor the incident caused a single passer-by in Opera Square, in Gumhourriyya Street, or in Cairo–or maybe in the whole world–to come to a stop at that moment.”

The entire story is taken up with the speaker, a literate and prosperous person, trying to persuade the unread unfortunate chair carrier to lay his burden down (he has apparently been carrying that identical chair since before the time of the Pyramids, in search of the man whom he is to receive permission to put his burden aside from, “Uncle Ptah Ra”).  Already here, we have a sort of symbolic double entendre (but of the political and not the sexual kind)–the chair carrier is the same primitive man, unable to read or write, who has been around since time immemorial, the serf or slave of the more fortunate, bowing to their customs and insistences, respecting their whims.

Then, the speaker asks the man what he will do if he cannot find the man he seeks, only to find that he will continue to carry the chair, because it’s been “deposited in trust” with him.  The narrator tells us:  “Perhaps it was anger that made me say:  ‘Put it down.  Aren’t you fed up, man?  Aren’t you tired?  Throw it away, break it up, burn it.  Chairs are made to carry people, not for people to carry them.’  ‘I can’t.  Do you think I’m carrying it for fun?  I’m carrying it because that’s the way I earn my living.’….”  Even when the narrator assures the chair carrier that Uncle Ptah Ra is dead long ago, the chair carrier, in another symbolic passage, which is meant to show the nature of serfdom and servility and sheer desperation to be able to support oneself somehow, indicates that he cannot put it down with a “token of authorization” from “his successor, his deputy, from one of his descendants, from anyone with a token of authorization from him.”

Even an outright command from the narrator, who is certainly of higher status, will not persuade the chair carrier that he has permission to put the chair down.  Then, suddenly the narrator notices “something that looked like an announcement or sign fixed to the front of the chair.  In actual fact, it was a piece of gazelle-hide with ancient writing on it, looking as though it was from the earliest copies of the Revealed Books.”  As it turns out, the writing says, “O chair carrier,/You have carried enough/And the time has come for you to be carried in a chair./This great chair,/The like of which has not been made,/Is for you alone./Carry it/And take it to your home./Put it in the place of honor/And seat yourself upon it your whole life long./And when you die./It shall belong to your sons.”  This too is highly symbolic, because of course any one individual chair carrier would in reality have been dead after one lifetime anyway, but this chair and this chair carrier symbolize something and someone forever a part of the human scene.  Note also that the poetry says that the chair is that “the like of which has not been made,” which seems to contradict the spirit of the rest of the lines, as if it could never happen.

When the narrator reads off this poetic scripture to the chair carrier, the narrator feels joy that at last his interlocutor can put down the chair, because initially overlooked by both of them, this sign gives the necessary permission without which the chair carrier refuses to do other than carry the chair.  But the narrator is unable to persuade the man, because as the chair carrier says of himself, he cannot read and does not therefore know for a fact that that is what the sign says:  he has no “token of authorization,” and can only accept the reading the narrator has done for him if the narrator has such a token.  The chair carrier becomes angry and says, “All I get from you people is obstruction.  Man, it’s a heavy load and the day’s scarcely long enough for making just the one round.”  He moves off, and leaves the perplexed narrator asking himself confused and bitter questions:

“I stood there at a loss, asking myself whether I shouldn’t catch him up and kill him and thus give vent to my exasperation.  Should I rush forward and topple the chair forcibly from his shoulders and make him take a rest?  Or should I content myself with the sensation of enraged irritation I had for him?  Or should I calm down and feel sorry for him?  Or should I blame myself for not knowing what the token of authorization was?”  In this series of questions, one can perceive a gradually diminishing element of violence and hostility, until finally the narrator turns the questions in toward himself, and supposes that he himself is ignorant or lacks a certain kind of understanding.  These questions in fact symbolically represent the different tactics human often take toward those less fortunate than themselves, those who are forced to live by different rules until at last they often accept their sorrowful lot and think that there is no other possible way for them to exist.  Here, the better educated and more fortunate narrator sounds to the chair carrier almost like an agent provocateur, with his suggestions which do not fit within the framework of possibilities that are allowable to the chair carrier.

Yusuf Idris, the author of this remarkable story, worked as a government health inspector in some of the poorest sections of Cairo.  This affected his social and political views, and gained him an audience for his works, while causing him also to be imprisoned a number of times.  He was finally able to leave medicine due to his popularity and concentrate solely on his writings.  What does not perhaps come across in translation (which has been done in this version by Denys Johnson-Davies) is the way in which Idris used spoken language in his compositions, producing his own individual style.  Though the story above is so entirely symbolic and speaks of a long history of oppressive regimes in the world, one can almost imagine the concerned government health inspector here in dialogue with one of his poorest patients, trying to persuade him to act for his health and set his burden aside for a time.  And while the chair carrier’s response is certainly grounds for pessimism, something which the narrator noted at the beginning as “disastrous” is the fact that the little scene provoked no response at all from those surrounding them in the street.  This suggests the reaction Idris wants us as readers to have, possibly, and seems to indicate that our role is at least to be witnesses, and concerned witnesses as that, if we are not strong and capable enough to be changers of the scene.  For, enough witnesses to an injustice can eventually provoke change, and after all is said and done, this clever and very short short story is made to be a witness’s statement, and to cause change in at least our perceptions, which is of course the first step to enacting justice.

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4 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

4 responses to “Yusuf Idris’s “The Chair Carrier”–Symbolic double entendres from sentence to sentence

  1. I’m liking this, it has a nice feel of magical realism at its very best. I love stories where the preposterous becomes fascinating and has you believing in the story itself.

    it always helps to have undertones of something more, something powerful that is universal and important. Curiously I couldn’t find it to add to my Amazon wishlist.

    • Hi, Steve. I’m glad you like magical realism, because in a little while, when I get done with the book, I’m going to review another story of magical realism, a novel this time. But I’m not telling about it now, don’t want to ruin the surprise. As to where to find the story, Amazon.com (here in the U.S.) lists several short story collections by Yusuf Idris, and sometimes when you click on the picture of the front cover, they will tell you what the contents are, but not always. But there’s a better way to get this story: I read it (and I’m sorry I didn’t mention it in the article, because I suppose many more people than just the two of us might be interested) in an anthology called “Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World,” edited by Clerk and Siegel, which came out in about 1995. Sadly for the editors, but happily for the readers, the anthology is listed on Amazon.com for two prices, both hardback and paperback, and if you buy it “used” in either, it’s less than $1.00 (what’s that now, about half a pound?). So all you really end up paying is a nominal amount plus shipping and handling, and many, many good stories of this general sort are available in the volume. I will probably review a few more of them as I read along, but for right now, I’m trying to get some novels finished for blogging. Happy days!

  2. Thanks for letting me know, I shall hunt it down later, not bad for about 50 pence…I haven’t bought a book so far this year so I think it is high time I get involved in capitalism once again and this has whetted my appetite. I look forward to reading your posts, as always.

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