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Fiction reviews


Naguib Mahfouz: The Thief and the Dogs; The Beginning and the End; Wedding Song

13 May 1989

The Thief and the Dogs
The Beginning and the End
Wedding Song
all by Naguib Mahfouz

Published in The Australian

Here are three novels by Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, newly translated from the Arabic as a result of his 1988 Nobel Prize. Each would provide an excellent introduction to the work of this master so recently discovered by the West.

The Thief and the Dogs, first published in 1961, is a terse, colorful and rather grim little tale of a man doomed to failure by a series of misfortunes - a kind of Butterfly Effect set in train by the death of his father. Said Mahran's fate at the hands of irresistable facts (one of which is his own resentful personality) drive him inexorably toward ruin.

Mahfouz's brand of naturalism reminds me a little of Camus (though Camus' translators are, alas, rather more lucid). The actual storyline of The Thief and the Dogs recalls Nabakov's Despair, in that Said's life becomes an elaborate plot to destroy his faithless wife - complete with endless self-justification.

The novel opens with the release of Said, a former revolutionary, from prison. He visits his old mentor, whose once-radical newspaper has now become a kind of Egyptian New Idea. Bitterly disappointed, Said again takes up the gun - which is where the catastrophes begin.

The Thief and the Dogs is a rare example of existential writing which reveals the psychological influence of Islam. The traslators' shortcomings - like "Said said" - are a little distracting.

The three sons in The Beginning and the End - Hassan, Hussein and Hassanein - also demand one's careful attention. The fatherless Kamel family's four children - the sister is called Nefisa - are beautifully differentiated. Hassanein, whose chief concern is social status, tells bold, complicated lies to hide his family's poverty from the world. Gentle, charitable Hussein renounces tertiary education for work, to support Hassanein's military studies. Hassan is a criminal whose earnings sustain the family (to their torment) through the worst times. Nefisa, a dressmaker, and condemned to spinsterhood by her ugliness, is a bitter old woman of 23.

Poverty is what impels this novel's action, and shapes - or rather, distorts - its characters.

After being seduced by him, Nefisa is rejected by Solimon the grocer's son - the only man ever interested in her - when his father finds him a wealthier catch. Nefisa then has to work on Solimon's bride's underwear. This galling event inaugurates her slide into promiscuity, and then prostitution. Samira, the mother, cannot visit a wealthy acquaintance to seek a job for her son: her coat is too shabby. The noose tightens on the family.

The Beginning and the End refuses to romanticise, or draw neat conclusions. Like all Mahfouz's work, it humanises Islamic society, as well as providing vital insights into its mechanics.

Published in 1981, Wedding Song is the story of Abbas, the stage-prompter who comes up with a hit play for his theatre. The play is about his own youth - wherein his father descends into opium addiction, and turns the family home into a whorehouse - and his early adulthood, wherein he pinches the girlfriend of his theatre's leading actor, marries her, produces a child, then loses them both to disease.

Or does he? The play has the Abbas-character withholding his wife's medicine (thus killing her), murdering his child, subsequently writing a successful play, then committing suicide. Is this coda true to events?

Several people think so, particularly after Abbas vanishes. Wedding Song is in four equal parts. The first is narrated by the leading actor, the second by Abbas' father, the third by his mother, and the fourth by Abbas himself. Each naturally puts an entirely different slant on things. And, as the story begins afresh, each provides details which have been hitherto withheld.

Wedding Song has by far the most interesting structure of these three novels. According to the cover blurb, "Time is the villain of this brilliant drama... cruel time, which transforms dreams into nightmares, sons and lovers into enemies, idealists into cynics." As usual I disagree with the cover blurb. This novel would (loosely speaking) interest Heisenberg more than Einstein: the same story told from four perspectives gives rise not only to different opinions, but to different realities. Time is less significant in determining the nature of this tale than viewpoint.

Wedding Song is regarded by the critics as experimental. This is also wrong, in my opinion. Its structure is unusual, certainly - but it is nonetheless highly competent, and symmetrical: it would have been clear to Mahfouz from the outset that it would succeed resoundingly.

The often simple dilemmas which stymie or even terminate lives are conveyed beautifully through these novels' interior monologues, which are generally italicised. Whether the theme be cruel fate, poverty, or the nature of reality itself, these monologues complement Mahfouz's stubborn realism, and his meticulous plotting, to convey eras, societies and characters, with detailed honesty and a finely controlled accumulation of emotional power.

One hopes many Westerners will read Mahfouz's novels: they may play a role in demolishing - in our imaginations - the illusion of a natural enemy, as Islam continues its historical rise.

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