Saturday, September 12, 2009

Book Review

Book Review: Midaq Alley (زقاق المدق) by Naguib Mahfouz: What can one say about the works of Naguib Mahfouz that hasn't already been said? His work has been over-analyzed, over-criticized, overly lauded and, most importantly, occasionally misunderstood.

I am going to take a different route. I am just going to review this one book, which, for me, is the ultimate Naguib Mahfouz novel. It summarizes his ambitions as a novelist, his obsessions, his genius, his style, and his strangely progressive sensibilities.

Midaq Alley, focuses on just that; a small alley where several Egyptian families, widows, singles and orphans live. As is his specialty, Mahfouz takes us on a tour of the lives of these individuals; a tour through their innermost thoughts and dreams. And what a tour it is. Mahfouz creates fascinating characters that leap off the page. From the young woman with dreams of grandeur, who would do anything to achieve money and fame (including becoming a high-class prostitute), to the owner of a small coffee house, a Haj who is also a pederast, to the young man who sees joining the colonial British Army as his only means of becoming a somebody, to the wealthy merchant who, after suffering from a stroke, becomes a reclusive hypochondriac with an obsession with death. The list of character goes on and on.

But Mahfouz's ability to draw fascinating characters is not the only thing that makes this novel a masterpiece. What makes it a masterpiece is Mahfouz's mastery of two things which have been absent from most Arabic novels in recent years. Realistic dialogue and tight plotting.

Here, Mahfouz weaves numerous plot strands, brings them together seemingly effortlessly, creating a compelling narrative that ends with a satisfying conclusion. And let's not forget that this book deals with things like prostitution, colonialism, psycho-sexual problems, youth angst, among many other things in an analytical and progressive-thinking manner; that in itself is a marvel considering that this book was published in Egypt in 1947!

If you want to get introduced to Naguib Mahfouz's work, there's no better introduction than Midaq Alley. A timeless masterpiece by an author who truly understood Egypt, warts and all.

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