Monday, February 28, 2011

One generation passeth away. . .

"This bourgeois class is nothing but an array of complexes. It would take an expert psychoanalyst to cure all of its ills, an analyst as powerful as history itself."

The above quote would be more appropriate for Palace of Desire, the middle volume of Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy which we've been reading since December. Talk about Drama! Final book Sugar Street, however, takes a different tone. Covering the al-Jawad family from late 1930s through 1944, the primary theme is age, its attending anxieties, and the passage of time.

Sugar Street's subdued mood contrasts sharply with the overwrought goings-on of Palace of Desire and the day-in-the-life narration of Palace Walk that was interrupted periodically by bursts of civil disorder as Egypt agitated for independence. Now there is a settled weariness in most of the grown children (Khadija, Yasin, Kamal), while Aisha has sunk into a permanent depression following the loss of her husband and two sons to cholera. Nearing the end of their lives, parents Al-Sayyid Ahmad and Amina are steadily falling into ill health, while World War II and Egypt's tumultuous politics are ever-present in conversation and falling bombs. Meanwhile, the new generation is on the rise, overshadowing even Kamal, who is only twenty-eight at the beginning and already suffering intellectual disillusionment.

Stylish Ridwan, son of Yasin the indiscriminate womanizer, is gay and suspiciously well-connected to various high-ranking members of the Wafd Party. Sixteen-year-old Nai'ma (daughter of Aisha) dies in childbirth early on, shortly after marrying double first cousin (!) Abd al-Muni'm (son of Khadija), the pious and idealistic Muslim Brethren member. His brother and political counterpart, Ahmad, becomes a leftist journalist who defies tradition with his working-class wife and comrade, Sawsan. Even more radical is his acceptance of her as an intellectual equal - exactly the opposite of how his older male relatives, including Kamal, have always viewed women. ("Our class is perverse," Ahmad thinks at one point. "We're unable to see women from more than one perspective.") Although Ahmad seems the most forward-thinking of the two, Abd al-Muni'm is hardly the proto-Taliban a modern reader would envision. Much to Ahmad's annoyance, the Muslim Brethren has appropriated socialism's rhetoric of earthly uplift and transcendental revolution. Needless to say, both movements make the Egyptian government very, very nervous.

There is also Yasin's daughter Karima, but she occupies a secondary role only, perhaps in keeping with the staunch (and hypocritical) conservatism of her older relatives.

At nearly two hundred pages shorter than the previous volumes, the darker storylines of Sugar Street have a tighter impact. Played out against a backdrop of international and domestic crises, the heady lives of the grandchildren and the passing of the older generations compose the most vivid portrait of a time and place Mahfouz has yet given us. All three books of The Cairo Trilogy end with catastrophes: Fahmy's death, the deaths of Aisha's husband and two sons, and the arrests of both Ahmad and Abd al-Muni'm. (And I've just received word that Joe has stolen Yasin's body!) But now there is no follow-up, in perfect keeping with the uncertainty of this later age. Despite an imperfect translation and an over-reliance on exposition, Naguib Mahfouz has given us a fascinating window into recent Egyptian history, as seen through the eyes of a single family. For an indirect sequel, I recommend Miramar, which takes place in the 1960s.

The Cairo Trilogy read-along was hosted by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos. Our schedule was:

December 26-27, 2010: Palace Walk
January 30-31, 2011: Palace of Desire
February 27-28, 2011: Sugar Street


Richard said...

"An imperfect translation and an over-reliance on exposition." Totally, E.L. Fay! With hindsight, I'm very glad I read Miramar before The Cairo Trilogy b/c I'm not sure how soon I would have wanted to give Mahfouz another chance if I had read the longer work first. Bummer.

Anonymous said...

I did enjoy the variety of thoughts and lifestyle choices among the grandchildren, which is what I expected from this book all along. There were other things that made it fall a bit flat for me. However, thanks for the reminder that it had its good points too.

Emily said...

I was super frustrated by this trilogy by the end, although I agree that some of the grandkids' stories had the potential to be interesting. But for me that's where it stayed: potential. The only character who ever achieved any level of vividness for me was al-Sayyid Ahmad, although I'm not sure whether I preferred his vividness or everyone else's shadow-quality. As I said in my post, Mahfouz's style struck me almost more as if someone were telling me ABOUT a novel at second hand, rather than like I was reading the novel myself.

I did like the moment when everyone is gazing at Na'ima and Ridwan thinks something like "This girl is so beautiful; I wish we could be friends. If we walked down the street together, no one would be able to say who was the more attractive, me or her." LOL

Valerie said...

You managed to get a better grasp of the political aspect of the final book. I lost track of who was following what party.

Like you, I felt weird about the double first-cousins marrying each other. Just thought of it now, but it was as if they were not willing to look past their small part of the world.

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