(A star rating is not appropriate for this "novel," which is really not a novel in the traditional sense.) Written in 1987, this last entry in the Cairo series by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz has no beginning, middle, and end, and no real plot. There are no standard chronology and no strong individual characters who develop fully during the action. Modeled on traditional Arab biographical dictionaries, which recorded the lives of influential citizens in single-paragraph entries, this is Mahfouz's most experimental novel. Here he arranges sixty-seven character sketches according to the Arab alphabetical order of the characters' first names, creating a series of short personal anecdotes which reveal lives and convey the history of three Cairo families from the Napoleonic wars through the death of Anwar Sadat.
The book begins with the death of a child, an episode which is recalled near the end of the book, and as the child's family is recreated, in random order by alphabet, the novel ripples out, incorporating different eras and other families, over four or five generations. Showing the progression of Egyptian political change, Mahfouz moves (non-chronologically) from the entrance of Napoleon into Cairo in 1798 to the British Occupation from 1882 - 1952; the 1919 Revolution against the British occupation; the Free Officer's movement, founded by Gamal Abdel Nasser, leading to the July Revolution of 1952; the Tripartite Aggression (the Suez Crisis) of 1956, in which Britain, France, and Israel attacked Egypt for nationalizing the Suez canal; the Six Day War of 1967, in which Israel attacked Egypt; the War of Attrition from 1967 - 70 between Egypt and Israel; and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, in which Egypt and Syria attempted to recapture land lost to Israel in the Six Day War.
As much as the book may be about political change, however, it is at least, if not more, about marriage and its importance in the culture. Throughout these generations, members of the same family intermarry to protect inheritance and wealth, but other marriages are also arranged among other "appropriate" families. The women are educated, at least at the level of literacy, and as time moves toward the present, the wives are often educated professionals--lawyers or physicians--who move easily between Egyptian and European cultures. A few of the individual family members move to other parts of the world--Germany, the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia, returning often to Cairo, despite their absences for significant periods of time. And while some of the characters may be passionately committed to some of the political movements of the day (and others may oppose them just as passionately), none of them are religious extremists.
Readers new to Mahfouz will probably want to start elsewhere for their introduction, perhaps with the more traditional The Cairo Trilogy or even Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth, written just two years before this novel. Written when Mahfouz was an old man reflecting on history and the meaning of being Egyptian, this novel can be tedious and sometimes frustrating. The characters' names are often very similar, making it difficult to remember who is who, and the lives of many characters resemble those of other characters and do not add significant new information. Still, like an impressionistic or pointillist painting, the individual biographies provide color and interest, which, taken together, give a picture of a broad cross section of Egyptian society dealing, over time, with the winds of change. n Mary Whipple
Palace Walk (Cairo Trilogy), Book 1
Palace of Desire (Cairo Trilogy), Book 2
Sugar Street (The Cairo Trilogy), Book 3
Children of the Alley: A Novel
Three Novels of Ancient Egypt: Khufu's Wisdom, Rhadopis of Nubia, Thebes at War (Everyman's Library)