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Mahfouz and Egypt

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I read Naguib Mahfouz out of curiosity for Egypt, the anicent civilization of Pharaohs, Sphinx and the pyramids. Indeed, for centuries most Westerners thought of the Middle East as a place of mystery, where writers like Sir Richard Burton and T. E. Lawrence swaggered across sandy landscapes and returned with accounts of the exotic customs they had glimpsed there. More recently, the mystery has turned sinister; many of us have come to believe that the entire Islamic world is seething with inscrutable religious fanaticism that ferments violence and mayhem.

It was in the midst of all these stereotypes that Naguib Mahfouz, then unknown to the English-speaking world, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Until this year, his masterpiece, The Cairo Trilogy, published in Arabic in 1956-57, has been unavailable in translation. Now, finally, readers can see for themselves why Mr. Mahfouz has long been considered the finest Arab writer of modern times.

Palace Walk, the first volume of the trilogy, centers on the life of a family living through the period between the end of World War I and the beginning of the 1919 revolution against British rule, a time of dramatic change in Egypt. The family’s patriarch, al-Sayyid Ahmad, is a member of the colorful fraternity of Cairo merchants. At home, he is a tyrant who has forbidden his wife to go outside the walls of the house for 25 years. When he discovers that his adolescent son Fahmy has a crush on a neighbor’s daughter, al-Sayyid is enraged. Yet his wife and children revere him as much as they fear him. The father is a complex figure, whose life is “composed of a diversity of mutually contradictory elements, wavering between piety and depravity.” In his shop he is generous and gregarious, and on his nightly carousings with other middle-aged businessmen he is a connoisseur of fine wines and fleshly courtesans.

Then, as now, the issues in Egypt center on several key themes: the role of women in society, moderate versus radical Islam, democracy, and military repression. The recent revolution distinguished itself in that women fought alongside the men in Tahrir Square. Yet those same women were sidelined in the formation of the new government. And some of them were arrested by the military and issued humiliating “virginity tests.” The same old battles remain. The new president, Mohammed Morsi, promises to respect international treaties and even to choose a woman and a Christian as vice presidents. But he comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, known for marginalizing women and Christians.

Mahfouz describes the first days of post-revolutionary Cairo as having a tenuous calm. At the same time, he describes Cairo as having “come back to life … The heart of the nation was throbbing. It was alive and in rebellion.” It’s a sentiment recently shared by Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who tells of the same euphoria after the 2011 uprising, describing friends on antidepressants “who, over the 20 days of revolution, forgot to take their pills and have now thrown them away. Such is the effect of the Egyptian revolution.”

The series hardly seems to have aged in the nearly six decades since publication. The novels record the voice of a people coming to terms with their own power, facing the thrill—and fear—of taking their destiny in their own hands. There has perhaps never been a better time to read them.

[763] A Site for Sore Eyes – Ruth Rendell

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” The house they stood in front of was described by those who knew about such things as a Georgian cottage and built of the kind of red bricks usually called mellow. But at this time of year, midsummer, almost all the brickwork was hidden under a dense drapery of Virginia creeper, its leaves green, glossy and quivering in the light breeze. The whole surface of the house seemed to shiver and rustle, a vertical sea of green ruffled into wavelets by the wind. ”

A Site for Sore Eyes tells three stories: Amidst the squalor of North London, in the hands of neglectful parents, Rendell describes in vivid details the cultural sewer in which Teddy Grex grew up. He becomes a gifted woodcrafter who appreciates everything beautiful. But he is also a psycopath capable of the vilest crimes. Francine is a mentally fragile girl who became mute after witnessing her mother’s murder. Then there’s Orcadia Cottage, greatly admired by Teddy, scene of a famous painting that is at the center of much of the story’s anguish.

These three seemingly separate stories gradually merge into one horrific tale. Rendell weaves a puzzle and as one tries to put together the pieces, the reader is captivated by her ability, her understanding of human behavior and her rendering everything into a mesmerizing whole. For once both Teddy and Francine are damaged people. Unloved as a child Teddy has grown to become a cold and indifferent young man who turns to beautiful objects for fulfillment. Francine is traumatized by the sight of her mother’s murder, making her vulnerable to the overbearing possessiveness of her stepmother, Julia. Teddy becomes obsessed with Francine after the first meeting…

This book is very dark and spooky. It is a crime novel, but one in which we see the crime happen in very brazen manner. But even the criminality is not what makes this book dark. Rather, the darkness comes from watching the three disparate (at first) characters live their lives in a broken society, one where privilege and poverty exist to keep the other in check. Both serve as a kind of prison, and in fact this book really is about prisons, both metaphorical and literal.

A Site for Sore Eyes paves the way for The Vault as the three stories converge toward the end but not resolved. There are a number of threads that come together in an inexorable way. It’s a chilling book but very humanized. This is the kind of book that keeps you guessing, and pushing you off the edge of the seat because of the blindspots imposed on the characters.

417 pp. Arrow UK. Mass Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

“Roots”

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Oreo leads me to Roots by Alex Haley. After I finished the book, I read the introduction:

While Oreo may have been one of the least-known novels of the decade, Roots went on to become the single most popular novel of the decade [1970s], black or white. It occupied the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-two weeks. It was adapted into one of the most-watched television miniseries of all time. –Danzy Senna

Now I’m very curious about Roots and it’s on my reading list. Have you read?

[762] Oreo – Fran Ross

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” The girl’s got womb . . . she’s a real ball buster. “

This is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read—puny, hilarious and sublime. Fran Ross’ throwaway lines have more zing than most comic writers. Sadly, it was the only book she wrote and that it didn’t get much attention when it was published in 1974. The heroine is Christine Clark a.k.a. Oreo. An “oreo” is, of course, a cookie, white on the inside and black on the outside; it’s also the taunt of choice for black people who appear to “act white.” Oreo doesn’t act white, in fact she embraces her multiplicity, aggressively asserting her mixed identity, code-switching between Yiddish, Ebonics, and highbrow academic jargon. Born to a Jewish father and black mother who divorce before she turned two, Oreo grows up in Philadelphia with her maternal grandparents while her mother tours with a theatrical troupe. Soon after puberty, Oreo heads for New York with a backpack to search for her father, a voice-over actor in Manhattan who has left her an absurd list of clues regarding her birth. He’s a bum, according to her mother, and her mission turns into a wickedly humorous picaresque quest.

Although the novel draws no conclusions and the quest leads to no ground-breaking revelatory payoff (a slight let-down), it’s diversion from the quest by wordplay and metareferences that makes Oreo shine. Ross has no qualm about racial taboo and she just goes off the tangents with racial puns. The narrative challenges accepted notions of race, ethnicity and culture. Oreo is Oreo’s quest, in bumpy parody of the classical odyssey of Theseus, to find her (Jewish white) father. She is cheeky, intelligent, and mischievous. She develops a self-defense system that deploys against many men who beat women with impunity. Her encounter with a horde of diverse people allows her to meander through her wicked and free imagination and to push reader toward a hyper-awareness of language itself. This book is erudite and playful. That it’s tied to the Greek myth allows it to go through some very insane materials without spinning out of control. Uproarious feminist attics!

230 pp. New Directions. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

“School Reads”

In light of back-to-school week, Goodreads asks what assigned reading book do you wish you had paid more attention to in school.

Moby Dick: it was too much of a rush to read something that didn’t interest me.
Great Expectations: I wish I read it more earnestly than like fiction.
The Bell Jar: the writing literally drove me crazy

I think as a teenager I lacked the life experiences to appreciate the themes of these monumental works. I took the books for their face value, gauging them just by whether they could keep me engaged. Also I didn’t enjoy the way books were taught in high school, within the constraint of a curriculum. I didn’t like dissecting a book into cold hard facts afterwards for an essay. Sometimes that mad dash to finish assignment ruins the pleasure of reading.

Georges Perec

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The booksellers at Shakespeare & Company in Paris recommends Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec and introduces me to this amazing author. Georges Perec died in 1982 at the age of 46, leaving behind a dozen books and a brilliant reputation. In the words of Italo Calvino, he was “one of the most singular literary personalities in the world, a writer who resembled absolutely no one else.”

Life: A User’s Manual is constructed in the manner of a vast jigsaw puzzle. In it, Perec takes a single apartment building in Paris and uses 99 short chapters (along with a preamble and an epilogue) to give a meticulous description of each and every room as well as the life stories of all the inhabitants, both past and present. What emerges is a series of self-contained but interconnecting stories. They are all briskly told, and they run the gamut from the bizarre to the realistic. There are tales of murder and revenge, tales of intellectual obsessions, humorous tales of social satire and (almost unexpectedly) a number of stories of great psychological penetration. For the most part, Perec’s microcosm is peopled with a motley assortment of oddballs, impassioned collectors, antiquarians, miniaturists and half-baked scholars.

[761] Seven Ages of Paris – Alistair Horne

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“A great city is…a work of art. It is a collective and complex art, it is true, but this makes it an even higher form of art.” -Guillaume Chastenet

Before I headed to Paris this summer for an in-depth visit, I wanted to peruse its history, Horne’s book just serves the purpose. He has written extensively about France’s history, especially its wars, but Seven Ages of Paris is a story of Paris. Keeping primarily within the confine of political and social history, he covers nine centuries, from the battle of Bouvines in 1284 to the barricades of 1968. Like many cities, Paris has its up and down. It has evolved over time and escaped unscathed from wars. Paris is the symbol of chic and style, and Horne makes plain that while Paris may be many things, it is never boring.

Unlike How Paris Became Paris, which I read also in preparation for the trip, Horne’s is more than an analysis of urban design, of architectural shifts, of the court’s removal from the Louvre to Versailles, and of Haussmann’s massive re-design of the city at the expenses of demolition. To this monumental task of describing what he calls the seven ages that encompass a thousand years, Horne underscores the tenacity of the medieval French kings as they transformed a small, vulnerable town into the capital of a growing centralizing state.

The focus of each age is the king, the villains and the heroes. Philippe Auguste (1180-1222) is recognized as the first true adorer and lover of Paris. The Capetian king who at the battle of Bouvines saw off the Plantaganet English established the security of France by ensuring a French lineage of kings. The equally adroit Henri IV, who solved the religious quarrels (War of Religions) of the 16th century by a cynical conversion to Catholicism, is credited with both intelligence and a grand vision of how to embellish and to develop Paris, an ambition whose most eloquent testament were Pont Neuf and the Place Royale (today’s Place des Vosges). Sully and Richelieu, both ministers of different ages, come across favorably for their achievement in building Paris and enhancing the purity of French language, respectively.

Horne’s assessment of the Sun King, Louis XIV, who spent most of his time at Versailles, is mixed. He rid of redundant government administrations and achieved solidarity of power. His court removal was a long-term disaster for the monarchy as it established a distance both geographical and political between itself and the city of Paris. Horne’s distaste for the French Revolution is such that he skips it, even though the Paris of those turbulent, tragic years deserves to be discussed. He does acknowledge Paris always rebounces with greater depth in humanity—in the form of arts, literature, and theater. Horne emphasizes the city’s growth under the two Napoleons, contrasting its glitter with the misery of the underclass. The Commune year and Great War also receive special attention. The critical victory at the battle of Marne in 1914, and the humiliation of occupied Paris in World War Two also inspire excellent pages. This book is very dense and thorough in research. It is a work of inspiration and love for Paris.

458 pp. Vintage Books/Random House. Trade Paperback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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