18 November 2012

Cairo Modern, by Naguib Mahfouz

I tend to have somewhat mixed feelings about Mahfouz novels - I like some, others, I don't really connect to. This one fell rather more into the latter camp. I read it pretty quickly, and even enjoyed it in some sense, but it just didn't seem like that great a book. Actually, what was kind of fascinating about it to me was that it read like a fairly typical nineteenth century French naturalist novel that got plopped into a different historical time and place. To be clear, I am not complaining that it seemed like an alien form imposed onto a resistant context, but rather that I'm just not that into nineteenth century naturalism.  Though I am somewhat intrigued by the idea that something about the political context of Egypt in the 1930s seems to call for that literary genre, and curious about the reception of these books in Egypt.

Like other books of Mahfouz's, this one can be somewhat unclear at times if you're not familiar with that political context, but it actually demands less of the reader than his other works. The basic issues are pretty clear, even if you don't know the intricacies of the background (perhaps the book would be more rewarding if you did). The novel starts off tracking a group of friends, but after 40 pages, it abandons all but one of them, focusing instead on his poverty and the marriage of convenience he enters into to escape it. The psychological profile will be familiar to anyone who's read Mahfouz's books; a bitter young man who just can't get ahead, who is cruel and heartless but also somewhat pitiful in his angsty immaturity. His female counterpart is by far the more interesting character, but unfortunately, we don't spend nearly as much time in her head. There is a subtlety to the portrayal of the characters that is easy to miss among the broad brushstrokes that detail their actions and inner states - while it seems somewhat crude when you're first reading it, it gains in retrospect, as you realize that a lot of the scenes were more carefully drawn than they first appeared.

Overall, it's a decent book, but not the place to start with Mahfouz.

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