Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Music of the Alley: An Introduction to the Fiction of Naguib Mahfouz

I can't speak for other readers, but for me there is always a feeling of enchantment when I encounter the work of an accomplished foreign novelist or poet for the first time. I experience the thrill of discovery as I am inducted into an entirely new world, one which I had not been previously aware of. Of course, this experience is neither new nor exclusive to me, but it is one that seems to be less and less sought after these days, which is a monumental shame.

There are places in the world I know I will never lay eyes on, never set foot anywhere near... and when I stop to think about it, this feels like a real loss. But there is a way to visit these foreign shores, to immerse oneself in others cultures and times and places, and the best part of all is that it doesn't cost you a dime. To read the great writers of the world is to partake of the great banquet of civilization, to sample dishes with flavors foreign to our Western palates that have the power to awaken hungers, or even cravings, we never realized we had. I vividly recall the thrill of "tasting" for the first time (for example) the spicy stew of South America through the work of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, or sampling the dark, heady brew of Scandinavian cultures via novels from such great writers as Sigrid Undset, Halldor Laxness and Tarjei Vesaas. And if any American reader would like to be fully immersed into a great seething cauldron of diverse and fascinating cultures, there is no experience quite like the Ivo Andric's epic of the Balkans, The Bridge on the Drina. Both Mutt and I have posted on most of these great writers on this blog. (And by the way, for more on the pleasures of eclectic reading, I would refer you back to one of Mutt's earliest posts entitled "Basking in World Light: In Praise of International Literature," in the Archives under August 2005.)

But the "gustatory" experience that comes through reading the work of a novelist from the Arab world was something entirely new and different for me, which is why I had been eagerly anticipating dipping into the ouevre of Naguib Mahfouz for a long time. Why start with Mahfouz? Well, for one thing, there just aren't that many novelists from Arabic cultures known to those of us who live in the West. When Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 (and oh yeah, that's another great reason to read his work), he was the first Arab writer ever to win it, and it exposed a great many people to his many novels that had been totally unaware of them previously. He was to a large extent unknown to the Western world. I certainly had never heard of him; in fact, I don't remember thinking anything about his winning the prize in the year he won it, since I was just beginning college and wasn't thinking much about reading and literature in those days. Later on, as I begun to read more widely and specifically, began to get a hankering for foreign fiction, I became aware of his name and reputation, but little else. Still, I was intrigued enough at the very idea of reading supposedly great fiction from a country as obscure to me as Egypt that I made a mental note that I wanted to read one of his novels at some point. Unfortunately, it took me many years to get to that point.

Anyway, I have just finished one of his more well-known novels called The Harafish. This being my own initiation into the work of this fascinating and prolific writer, I thought I would share a few thoughts and impressions about it, as a kind of introduction to the fiction of Naguib Mahfouz. It is also, I ought to note, an appropriate time to post these thoughts as Mr. Mahfouz just died a few months ago. So this is also a kind of tribute to his life and work and an admonition for more people to discover it.

My entry into a world totally foreign to my own sensibilities was announced before I had even read a word of the book itself -- for the very title and structure of it carry with them traditional Arabic literary overtones. First, the title -- The Harafish. "Harafish" is an Arabic word, as the English translator explains in an opening note, meaning the "rabble" or "riffraff". But then she quickly adds that "in this novel it means the common people in a positive sense, those in menial jobs, casual workers, and the unemployed and homeless." Then there is the interesting and Arabian Nights-like way the book is structured, with each chapter not listed as "Chapter 1" or Part II," but in this way: "ASHUR AL-NAGI: The first tale in the epic of the harafish"; "LOVE AND IRON BARS: The third tale in the epic of the harafish"; etc. It is obvious that Mahfouz was intending to model his story after the folk tales and myths that he grew up hearing and that have been handed down to him through the culture he lives in. Even as subtle a change as structuring the book in this unorthodox way provides a hint that, for American readers anyway, Dorothy ain't in Kansas no more.

The Harafish was definitely a new and interesting experience for me as a reader. New, and yet, no so new after all. Because Mahfouz is exploring themes that are certainly universal to men and women of ALL times and ALL cultures -- the hardscrabble lives of the working class and the chasm of injustice between the haves and the have-nots; the turbulent and absurd relationship between the sexes; the inherent mystery of human life and particularly human suffering; the influence of religious tradition on society, etc. -- but he allows his readers to view all this through a distinctly Arabian, and I imagine a distinctly Egyptian, filter. And yet, it should be remembered too that Mahfouz studied philosophy and was a insatiable reader of Western literature as well, admiring writers like Dostoevsky, Camus, Beckett, Faulkner, Dickens and Proust. So what you end up with is a curious and inimitable mix of mysticism and pragmatic philosophy in his prose, with powerful undercurrent, naturally, of Arabic folklore and Islam pumping just underneath the surface. Perhaps a few passages cited at random will help demonstrate what I mean. Here is the opening "sub-chapter" of the first tale (each "tale" is broken up to as many as sixty brief numbered sub-chapters, sometimes only a line or two long -- which also makes for a narrative that is driven along by quick snatches and images, rather than a long and linear storyline):

In the passionate dark of dawn, on the path between death and life, within view of the watchful stars and within earshot of the beautiful, obscure anthems, a voice told of the trials and joys promised to our alley.

The first tale tells of a baby, eventually named Ashur al-Nagi, who is abandoned (we never find out by who) at the doorstep of an Islamic monastery in an alley in Cairo. This baby grows up to become a giant of a man, eventually rising to become the "clan chief," apparently a prominent position in the back alley societies of Cairo. It's never fully explained in this book, but Mahfouz often wrote about particular "alleys" in his native city of Cairo and the lives that are lived within them (one of his other famous works is called in English The Children of the Alley), and so I can only assume that the word "alley" roughly corresponds to what we know as "neighborhood." (Whether or not it's literally one alley I am not sure, although for all that is described in the stories, I doubt this is the case -- it seems a bit more geographically spread out than that.)

At any rate, the rest of the tales simply tell of the lives of the many descendents of Ashur al-Nagi: their triumphs and failures, loves and losses, and their frequent losing and regaining control of the alley itself. As the book moves along, the original al-Nagi becomes more and more of a legendary figure, almost corresponding to a saint in the Catholic Church, which is strange, since he was a thief and adulterer who ended up losing everything he had (wrongfully) gained and then disappearing forever without a word to anyone. Although in that culture, adultery at least seems to be viewed as something that can't be avoided, and is more or less accepted by everyone, even its victims. Even monogamy for that matter is not something held out as sacrosanct.

It becomes clear as you read these chronicles of the successive generations of the al-Nagi family that Mahfouz is using this device to do two things: one, ponder the mystery of human existence in all of its squalor (and occasional grace); two, to create a rich panorama of the lives of the simple, hard-working people who inhabit the forgotten alleys of his native city. Yet by tracing a family's history generation by generation, he imbues the narrative with an epic, almost scriptural tone -- it feels like you're reading stories straight out of the book of Genesis, although maybe the Koran would be a better text to use for comparison (I plead ignorance, having never read from the Koran -- something I plan to correct one day). Anyway, the stories feel like myths handed down through the years and told around campfires -- they are riddled with hilarious human foibles, acts of incomprehensible evil and violence, sordid love affairs and illegitimate children, and the like. But interestingly, what links all of these stories together are the presence of the harafish as constant witnesses of the repeated failures of the al-Nagis, and the mysterious chants heard nightly in the main square from over the ancient walls of the monastery -- with its huge, impenetrable wooden doors that remain closed to all who might be curious about the mysteries contemplated within.

Part of what makes Mahfouz's novel so much richer than just your average chronicle of passing generations of a particular family in a particular place is the deep spirituality that saturates every single page of the book. Obviously this is a Muslim culture, so the character of that spirituality is going to different than that which a Western Christian is used to; nevertheless, there is certainly deep human wisdom contained in all of the world's religions, and it is fascinating to hear the insights of the Islamic faith applied to specific lives. Here is a typical passage in which a character contemplates the past and the mystery of time (keep in mind that the novel that supposedly influenced Mahfouz more than any other was Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu):

For the first time he began to brood on what was past and what was to come. He thought about people who had died, about saints who had lived for a thousand years. About the processes of decay that turned strong men into objects of ridicule. Betrayal was not only caused by spiritual weakness or the acts of men. It was easier by far to wreck an armed parade than to unsay things that should never have been said. You could rebuild a ruined house, but not a human being. The pleasure of the music is only a short-lived veneer on the song of parting.

I don't know why and I can't point to any specific examples to back this up, but for some reason it just seems to me hard to imagine a Western writer making the same points in the same way (especially in that beautiful and evocative last sentence). Here is one more example of the deeply spiritual, wise and beautiful prose Mahfouz delivers, even in translation (a character has built a towering minaret and has just climbed to the top of of it, and is now looking down over the alley he calls home):

At the top the language of the stars was audible, the whisperings of space, the prayers for power and immortality, far from the exaggerated complaints, the lassitude, the stink of decay. Now the poems from the monastery sung of eternity. The truth revealed many of its hidden faces. Destinies were laid bare. From this balcony he could follow successive generations, play a role in each, join the family of the celestial bodies for all eternity.

I hope these passages will give you a taste of the exotic and enticing flavor of Mahfouz's fiction. The Harafish did not strike me as a perfect novel -- it is definitely repetitive in places, it is very difficult to keep the multitude of characters' names straight, and it is perhaps a little bit longer than it needs to be -- but overall, I found it to be a fascinating, wise and deeply affective work of art. Many times his prose soars with a lyrical beauty that reveals his obvious talent, his true writer's soul. And the insights into the mystery and fragility of human relationships makes the novel well worth reading and pondering for a long time afterward. The Nobel Prize committee seems to me to have gotten it right when they wrote in his citation that Mahfouz "through works rich in nuance -- now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous -- has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind."

After reading just one novel, I am convinced of the truth of this statement, and will definitely be returning to his extensive body of work in the future, God willing...


Mutt Ploughman said...

This one post obliterates all my previous inquiries and pleas for some kind of comment on the experience of reading Mahfouz.....I've never read him myself, but this makes me very, very interested to dive in to this guy's work. Brilliant summation by Duke, who can write very well about books, a talent that only sharpens with the ever-widening pool of literature has has very impressively tackled. It's getting to the point where Duke can comment incisively on almost all corners of world literature, and we at the TST have always testified, the beast feeds itself - the more reading and pondering of the great works of the world canon you take in, the more you want to read......I recently ordered a trilogy of Mahfouz novels myself, and I have his late book "The Dreams" (courtesy of Duke), so I will be dipping in hopefully sooner than later.

Aura McKnightly said...

Both of you guys should be writing for literary magazines reviewing books and what not. I'm sure you've already been told this, but tis true.

Duke Altum said...

Wanna thank both you guys for this generous feedback on my post... I am glad you seemed to enjoy this sampling of a great writer's work. This is what it is all about, reading new writers, new voices and sharing the insights gained... if this blog were only to serve that function between the three of us, it is serving a very good purpose.