Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"This crisis too, like all others, finally subsided and the alley returned to its usual state of indifference and forgetfullness."

". . . It continued, as was its custom, to weep in the morning when there was material for tears and resound with laughter in the evening. And in the time between, doors and windows would creak as they were opened and then creak again as they were closed." (284-285)




Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1988. He is best known for his novels about the evolution of modern Egyptian society. Mahfouz's early exposure to Western literature influenced his innovative development of both the Arabic novel and colloquial Arabic prose. Another inspiration was his lifelong interest in democratic politics and social justice.

Zuqāq al-Midaq (Midaq Alley, translated by Trevor Le Gassick) was published in 1966. It follows the lives of various characters who live and work in the eponymous Cairo alley. Kirsha the café owner is a gay drug addict. Husniya the bakeress routinely beats her husband Jaada with her slipper. Uncle Kamil the good-natured sweets seller is fat and sleepy. Salim Alwan is a wealthy businessman embittered by a heart attack. Zaita is a sadistic cripple-maker held in fear and esteem by professional beggars. Sheikh Darwish is a half-mad former English teacher who left his job after a demotion to roam the streets. Saniya Afify is a middle-aged landlady looking to remarry after years of independence. Dr. Booshy is a self-proclaimed dentist with a shady background. Hamida is a beautiful but selfish (and not to mention sociopathic) young woman obsessed with riches and Abbas the barber is the poor sap in love with her. And so forth. With World War II raging in Europe, Abbas and his friend Hussain Kirsha have left Midaq Alley to work for the British.

That's basically the whole plot right there: the interactions of various over-the-top personalities in a timeless locale only now starting to show the tremors of the twentieth century. The denizens of Midaq Alley are generally apathetic towards politics, viewing the whole matter as little more than a spectacle, and therefore lack any recognition of the social forces at play in their lives. Everything is up to fate and the will of God. Midaq Alley is very much a surface novel where things are as they are, arranged in place by a higher being (whether that's God or Mahfouz himself in the metafictional sense). Unfortunately, this also means that the story is bogged down by the same issues that plagued the Cairo Trilogy. It's exposition overkill and the inability to follow the "show, don't tell" rule which should be engraved on a plaque above every writer's desk.

Now I'm told that Mahfouz's original Arabic is renowned for its eloquence and how it captures everyday speech. Alas, this rarely seems to come through in translation. (And Midaq Alley and the Cairo Trilogy both had different translators.) "Arabic is, of course, a language far different in syntax and sounds from English and gives expression to highly distinctive people and a complex culture," Le Gassick says in his introduction, going on to explain how this leaves the translator with almost too much flexibility with regards to vocabulary and arrangement. "The present translation offers an approximation of how Mahfouz might have expressed himself had English been his native tongue" (xi). The situation is not entirely hopeless, however. I still do recommend the scenic, sporty Miramar, which either had a superior translator or was the product of a good day for Mahfouz. Oh, the travails of the monolingual bibliophile.

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12 comments:

JoAnn said...

I wish I could read in multiple languages but, unfortunately, am totally at the mercy of translators. Miramar has been on my wish list ever since your review...will hope for a copy to cross my path and skip this one for now.

Amy said...

I want so much to read and appreciate this author but the first in the Cairo Trilogy did really bog me down and it sounds like this one might too unfortunately. Perhaps some day I can read him in Arabic, though if my current attempts at learning are any indication... seems unlikely ;)

Miguel said...

Midaq Alley is one of my favourite novels by Naguib Mahfouz, although it's different from his other novels I've read. Mahfouz has an abilitty o reinvent himself with each novel. Arabian Nights and Days, a tribute to The Arabian Nights, is an excellent work of fantasy.

E. L. Fay said...

JoAnn: I'm beginning to think Miramar is the only Mahfouz work worth reading. Been pretty disappointed with him.

Amy: Well, good luck with that. I've been trying to learn Spanish for awhile now and I heard that language is supposed to be easy!

Miguel: Sounds intriguing but I'm not sure I'm at all enthused about more Mahfouz at this point. Maybe in the future - since you said it's fantasy, I'm guessing he did something totally different?

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The situation is not entirely hopeless.

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The interactions of various over-the-top personalities in a timeless locale only now starting to show the tremors of the twentieth century.

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Everything is up to fate and the will of God.

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Another inspiration was his lifelong interest in democratic politics and social justice.

rights of common law wives said...

Another inspiration was his lifelong interest in democratic politics and social justice.

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