Although rumours about back-room negotiations had been swirling around the International Prize for Arabic Literature for months, there doesn't seem to have been much objection to the actual winner. As the novelist Abdo Khal noted after accepting his prize, there was no lobby or no literary clique supporting him. From a literary perspective, Saudi Arabia is a relative backwater and Khal has forced his way onto the international scene by merit. Yet his winning novel, Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles, might have been a controversial choice. A dark satire on the dynamics of power, it is narrated by a youth employed in a Jeddah palace as a torturer and enforcer. It contains scenes of terrifying sexual violence, portrays Jeddah as a kind of hell and asserts: "Life is a filthy business ... you have to commit sins to be a human being."
Human beings commit sins, there can be no doubt. This week a Jouf literary club was burnt down in what seems to have been an arson attack by extremists. Earlier the club's chairman received a text message asking: "Do you know that your murder is halal?" The kingdom's Grand Mufti issued a statement to say that it would be no such thing and Saudi commentators have condemned the attack as an act of "intellectual terrorism". Nonetheless, the incident illustrates the risks of literary activities that remain in many parts of the world. Khal's book is a bold piece of work to have emerged from such a precarious cultural scene.
It is, of course, puerile to celebrate outrage for its own sake. Yet societies go through cycles of permissiveness. By contrast with the satires of the medieval poet Al Jahiz or the hedonistic verses of Abu Nuwas, traditionally regarded as the greatest of Islamic poets, Arabic literature has been going through a phase of exaggerated modesty. Some testing of the boundaries seems necessary if the social mores aren't to become too stifling.
And Khal's novel, for all its outre elements, is a poetic and morally serious work. The chairman of the jury that awarded Khal the prize, Taleb Al Refai, praised it for giving readers "a taste of the horrifying reality of the excessive world of the palace". We don't need to follow William Blake in saying that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. But let's agree, it's better to imagine a palace of horrifying excess and brutality than it is to live in one.