This second novel by an acclaimed Egyptian journalist (and full-time dentist, apparently) is set in Chicago, Illinois. Which is, as most people reading this will know, a big city on the shores of Lake Michigan in North America. If you didn't know that, no problem. The author takes the first few pages of the book to give you a potted history of the city, complete with early genocides committed against the natives and the story of Mrs. O'Leary's cow.
That part is aimed, I guess, at readers in Cairo who might not have a strong notion of just where or what Chicago is. I mean, it doesn't seem to be presented in an ironic or particularly humorous way, or as a postmodern touch.
Thankfully the book moves on quickly to its main stories, a set of interlocking portraits of Egyptian students and emigres living in Chicago with their assorted spouses, lovers, and colleagues, some of whom are fellow emigres and some of whom are blonde or wear cowboy boots or whatever, and so are meant to represent native-born Americans. In superficial terms, then, this book resembles Zadie Smith's phenomenal "White Teeth," which deals with a group of Caribbean and South Asian emigres and native-born locals in a London suburb.
But Smith's novel is a masterpiece and already a classic, so it's probably not fair to make many comparisons with "Chicago," which often struggles just to get its stories told. Smith created memorable, quirky, individual characters and set them in motion to create a wholly unique series of events and experiences. Alaa Al Aswany has a journalist's instinct for sketching recognizable, culturally representative personalities, as long as they're Egyptian. So here we get the young radical (a misunderstood poet), the conniving president of a foreign students' union (who is also a religious hypocrite, a male chauvinist pig, and -- just in case you still missed the point -- a moocher with a secret bank account), a naturalized American who has deliberately rejected every shred of his Egyptian heritage and never fails to put down Egypt and all Egyptians in all his public conversations. And so on, including a young, observant Muslim woman, who has her values shaken by her encounter with American culture. Imagine that. There are others, but you can probably figure them out yourself if you've watched CNN for the last couple of years.
And these are the well-drawn characters. The problem is that there's virtually nothing surprising about any of them, so they come across more as types than as actual humans. Their predicaments are predictable, and so are their responses. By comparison, the "Americans" in the novel are stick figures. With their stock dialogue and limited responses, they seem to be there mostly to push the plots along. (I'm about halfway through the novel right now, so I'll report back when I'm finished, if anything actually changes about the whole character thing.)
Part of the disappointment of this novel doesn't reside with the author's work, however. It has apparently received the crudest, clumsiest translation I've ever encountered in a book first written in another language. At least I think that must be the problem. The prose seems wooden and childish at many points; surely the literate Egyptians who praised this novel and its predecessor didn't have to deal with the awkward locutions of the English here. (Or maybe they were so excited by the frank depictions of governmental corruption and the characters' sexy behavior that they overlooked its lack of purely literary merit?)
Some people will probably recognize themselves in the pages of "Chicago," especially if they squint. Everyone else can walk on by.