15 April 2012

Morning and Evening Talk, Naguib Mahfouz

I'm going to Cairo for a week in May, so in preparation, I picked up the Lonely Planet guide (only much later did I notice that it's from 2008...) and this novel (dorky, I know. Even dorkier, I actually got another Mahfouz book as well, and I already had Andre Aciman's memoir, Out of Egypt, waiting on my shelf. Immersion!). I'd read Mahfouz before (and liked some of his books more than I liked others - though my first encounter with him was more than 5 years ago, maybe I'd feel differently now), and this novel, a later work of his, looked intriguing. It's a kind of biographical dictionary, alphabetically organized, with short accounts of the person's life. The people described come from three interconnected families, and the book spans from Napoleonic times to the 1980s. I thought to myself that it would either be amazing or annoyingly contrived, and it turns out to be decidedly more of the former. It's incredible how absorbing a 1-2 page dictionary entry on a person can be! And how wonderfully the pieces begin to form a whole, an world of interrelated characters as dense as any realist novel. I definitely do not know enough about Egyptian history (early on in my reading of the book I did some quick research, ie, read the wiki entry and the Lonely Planet rundown) to fully appreciate what the novel was doing - and unlike many realist novels, this book won't really teach you the history its set in. On the other hand, its like 120 pages, instead of the 350-500 of most realist classics. But you are clearly aware that your ignorance is depriving you of a proper appreciation of this book - its like listening to music on your iPod with only one earphone in. Still, I definitely recommend it - even if you're not getting the full richness, it's still a pretty wonderful book.

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