publication date: 1984
This Egyptian novella, though first published in 1961, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988, after being translated into English from the Arabic in 1984. The author, Naguib Mahfouz, worked for the Egyptian civil service and used this book to present the story of a convicted thief’s descent into madness.
The book had a very noir quality, with the action mostly occurring at night and with the main character, Said, constantly prowling the streets of Cairo. While Said roamed, the book included his bitter and obsessive inner monologue:
The bars have shut down and only the side streets are open, where plots are hatched. From time to time he has to cross over a hole in the pavement set there like a snare and the wheels of tramcars growl and shriek like abuse. Confused cries seem to seep from the curbside garbage. (I swear I hate you all). Houses of temptation, their windows beckoning even when eyeless, walls scowling where plaster has fallen.
Mahfouz’s writing had a compelling poetry and directness. Here was an example from a scene where Said was attempting to break into and burglarize the home of an enemy:
When [Said] was sure the street was empty he dodged into the hedge, forcing his way in amidst the jasmine and violets, and stood motionless: If there was a dog in the house – other than its owner, of course – it would now fill the universe with barking.
Another example of Mahfouz’s writing style was this line of absolution:
But the dawn shed dewy compassion giving momentary solace for the loss of everything, even the two banknotes, and he surrendered to it.
Another aspect of Mahfouz’s writing that I enjoyed was his ability to write in aphorisms. For example, here was Said attempting to explain the traitorous nature of a former mentor:
But what’s truly ridiculous is that the distinguished teacher of the accused is a treacherous scoundrel. You may well be astonished at this fact. It can happen, however, that the cord carrying current to a lamp is dirty, speckled with fly shit.
The book included innumerable details of Egyptian life. The author inserted specific Cairene streets and depicted the Egyptian characters’ dress, food, jobs, and religion. It also was very universal. Mahfouz presented a convincing portrait of a man with an increasingly tenuous grip on reality.
At times, however, the book was slow. This was quite a feat, considering it was only 108 pages. The dullness came from the book’s repetition and its proselytizing characters. There also was not much of a plot: newly freed convict wanders urban streets as the reader wonders how much of the book’s action is taking place within the main character’s head.
With that said, I would definitely recommend the book. It’s a classic and a quick read.
4/6: worth reading