Monday, November 5, 2012

Review: Cairo Modern by Naguib Mahfouz

Shepheard's Hotel, Cairo, 1935.  via.
 Reviewed by Christina

Published: In Arabic, 1945.  English translation by William M. Hutchins, 2008.

It's about: Ambitious nihilist Mahgub Abd al-Da'im will do anything to escape his peasant roots.  He happens to get lucky when he discovers that he can forge a deal with a corrupt government official who wants to maintain a secret affair with Ihsan, the gorgeous but impoverished girl Mahgub happens to love.  Set in the 1930's, Cairo Modern explores political and philosophical themes while spinning a tale of desperation and impending doom.

I thought:  First, a little background info about Mr. Mahfouz, who will probably be unfamiliar to many English-language readers.  In 1988 Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  He was raised in a strict Muslim household, but his works (over 30 novels, hundreds of short stories, and several plays and screenplays) have been banned and and un-banned in many Islamist countries, and he was the victim of an attempted assassination by a Muslim fundamentalist group in 1994.  He's a fascinating guy, and I recommend his wikipedia page.

Going in, I knew nothing about it this book or its author, and I enjoyed discovering the themes as I read.  Mr. Mahfouz has a nice way of blending philosophy, politics, and societal commentary into his characters' thoughts and actions.  He's a good writer with a clear, straightforward style hiding subtler depths.  The translation here is great, too.  I think I might have gotten more out of the story if this edition had a forward or introduction to give background information about the period in Cairo and Egypt's history; there were probably a lot of important points that went right over my head.

But overall, my impressions of Cairo Modern just aren't very favorable, mainly because I so detested the main character, Mahgub.  I know this was intentional- the guy is willfully amoral and selfish throughout- and I think he is the author's way of exploring nihilism as a grounding philosophy.  When he finally does get a comeuppance, it's depressing rather than satisfying because it effects certain innocent supporting characters.  In general, almost all of said supporting characters are either good or evil, and those just aren't my favorite type to read.  I realize and respect that Naguib Mahfouz is doing all of this on purpose.  I know he's exploring philosophical ideas through his story and characters.  It just isn't my favorite type of novel.  It's only 240 pages, and not difficult reading.  But it was long enough for me.

Verdict: In between.  It's a decent novel and I very much respect Naguib Mahfouz and his work.  But Cairo Modern is just not my cup of tea.

Reading Recommendations:  I don't know.  Prepare to not like Mahgub. 
This NYT article provides some helpful context that I wish I would have had before starting to read the novel, though I don't agree with everything it has to say about Mahgub.

Warnings: a couple of swears and some lustiness

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