Where new writing finds its voice
The Interview

An Interview with Robert Twigger

Anna Goodall


We live in the past. We live in the future. I wish (and don’t you?) that we lived more in the present. It isn’t very easy: we used to cower in caves; now we hunker in bunkers.

So begins Robert Twigger’s novel, Dr Ragab’s Universal Language. The narrative centres on the diary of Hertwig, a German professor and First World War veteran who finds himself imprisoned by ex-convicts in Germany just after the Second World War. But the circumstances are singular: he is being held captive in an underground bunker on his own family’s estate, and furthermore, he built the bunker with his own hands, to protect himself and a Jewish girl, Hagar, during the war.

An unusual situation; or, come to think of it, maybe not. The novel is concerned, as the opening lines suggest, with the notion of the self being trapped in protective constructions of its own making – the ties of memory, greed, desire, fear and foreboding that interrupt and cloud knowledge
and understanding.

Through his diary, we learn that Hertwig’s own desire for enlightenment, his ‘search for wisdom’, led him to 1920s Cairo where he became the only pupil of the mysterious polymath Dr Ragab. Dismissed as a charlatan by some, hailed as a magical and spiritual genius by others, the Doctor subjects Hertwig to a series of gruelling and seemingly pointless tasks while the young man tries to learn Ragab’s Universal Language.

He is baffled by Ragab’s teachings – in the dark, as it were – and after he is called back home to see his father who is terminally ill, he never returns. In the intervening years between his homecoming and the war he becomes a successful academic in Germany, and half-forgets Dr Ragab and his ideas.

But whilst trapped underground some twenty years later, in an apparently hopeless predicament, Hertwig thinks back to his time as the Doctor’s pupil and only in the pitch darkness of his impregnable bunker does he come closer to understanding Dr Ragab’s lessons and the Universal Language

Interwoven betwixt and between this fascinating account, the unnamed narrator’s modern-day story provides bathetic interludes. He reads Hertwig’s diary on the tube, at home, even dropping it in the bath and giving himself the flu while trying to incant the Universal Language in his Ealing residence – Dr Ragab stipulates this should never be attempted untutored – all whilst trying to make sense of his own failing love life and seemingly chaotic existence.

* * *

Robert Twigger is a British author currently residing in Cairo. He is the author of several books, including Angry White Pyjamas, an account of a year he spent training at the Yoshinkan Aikido Hombu Dojo in Japan, for which he won the Somerset Maugham Award and the William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Dr Ragab’s Universal Language is his first novel.



Anna C Goodall: How did Dr Ragab’s Universal Language begin: when did you first have the idea for the novel and how long did it take you to write?

Robert Twigger: I had the idea about seven years ago when I was thinking about resonance (as one does), and I was in Cairo at the time where Ragab is a month of the year so Dr Ragab is like Dr March in English. It took me a sad seven years to write because I kept starting new drafts. I must have done three novels at least!

ACG: What was the most difficult aspect of writing a fictional novel as opposed to a work of non-fiction? And was there anything that you found easier about the process?

RT: The hardest part is realising that in non-fiction you already have a structure – what happened – but in fiction you don’t, even though you think all those notes you’ve made, and that cursory reading of Story by Robert McKee, count as structure. But actually it’s the first draft that provides the structure – unless you have a formula such as a detective novel which I didn’t.

ACG: How would you describe Universal Language and what interests you about the idea of one? Do you believe that it exists?

RT: Universal Languages are fascinating as intellectual conceits but they never really work. Esperanto is always struggling along, and many more have died along the way – including my favourite ‘idiom neutral’. There is, of course,
a real universal language – it has something to do with love.

ACG: Can you explain more about the idea of the luminous soul?

RT: A luminous soul is someone who has what the Arabs call ‘kaif’, that is, a kind of ineffable lightness. It’s at the heart of what is enjoyment, novelty, some kinds of excitement, trivial things we suddenly see as if for the first time. Kaif is absent in routine, drudgery, repeated attempts to get high through drink and drugs, though a party may be full of kaif. Everyone knows a luminous soul, or has met one, or been smiled at by one as the bus you were on pulled away and you even thought for a brief crazy moment about getting off and following that smile to the ends of the earth.

ACG: The bunker is present throughout the novel, from the narrator’s ‘bunker love’, to Hertwig’s forced imprisonment in one of his own making. How does the symbol of the bunker operate in the novel?

RT: The bunker is Plato’s Cave. It is also the earthbound part of the self, the part that keeps us down with feet of clay. It is also connected to our fascination with security and protection.

ACG: In the novel, the desert both confounds Hertwig’s desire to easily gain and possess wisdom, yet it is also where Dr Ragab shows Hertwig a ‘miracle’. You have written about and visit the desert regularly. What influence does it have on your writing, and what is a trip to the desert like?

RT: I love the desert because it has so little in it. I can actually switch off my normal filters – the information filters we all need in this noisy world. The influence on my writing is simply that I love the place and you write best about what you love. In reality of course desert trips can be windy and gritty, even dangerous. A friend got bitten by a gerbil last week… I kid not.

ACG: The novel is interested in the difference between occidental and oriental ideas of reasoning and wisdom. Do you think these versions of truth and knowledge can coexist, or are they essentially incompatible?

RT: They can coexist and do so – even more now than fifty years ago. The only problem is we have so much other information the real stuff can be blanked out sometimes. But take an author like Richard Burton, who died in 1890. He was a master of both worlds.

ACG: Pain features in the story as a fast track to tapping into the Universal Language. In both the context of the novel, and in life in general, do you think pain is necessary for enlightenment?

RT: Pain is part of life! Can’t avoid it, so maybe it’s better to know something about it. I think you need to be a bit of a masochist to get most things done.

ACG: How has living in Cairo influenced your work?

RT: I have more time here as it costs less to live so I don’t need to worry so much. I love the craziness of the place – gives me lots to write about. Also it’s good to have other concerns than a UK-based writer.

ACG: You have travelled extensively and written about your experiences of travel. Do you think it is important to travel, or can the human heart learn just as much about the world and itself by staying at home?

RT: YOU HAVE TO TRAVEL – even if it’s only in your own land, though it’s dead easy and very cheap to go anywhere these days. Really there is no excuse!

ACG: Can you describe your study or the place where you write?

RT: I write in a kind of monastic cell on top of a church building in Cairo, lent to me by a priest who is a friend and also a writer. It has a fridge with water and Coke – my only luxury as I tip tap away looking out at the sky. There’s no view, thank goodness. I don’t need much to write apart from no distractions.

ACG: Which writers have influenced you the most?

RT: It’s always changing. Some are people I know such Tahir Shah, Steve Micallef, Chris Ross and Jason Webster. Others in the past include Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Willeford, Hunter Davies, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Browne, Edward Bunker, Naguib Mahfouz.