Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Reviews

Book Review: Soloman's Ring (خاتم سليمان) by Sherif Meleika: Every once in a while, I come across a book that gives me hope for Egyptian literature. Despite the amount of literary junk that Egyptian writers have been producing this past decade (most of it pretentious, hypocritical non-fiction), there are some books out there that give one, as a reader as well as an Egyptian, hope that Egyptian writers still have masterpieces hidden under their sleeves. Mansoura Ezz El Din's Maryam's Maze is one such masterpiece. Soloman's Ring by Sherif Meleika is another.

This is a book that is admirable in its ambitiousness, hypnotic in its storytelling, elegant in its style, and, above all, one hell of a well-told story. Blending fact and fiction, real characters with fictitious ones (Gamal Abdel Nasser himself has a minor role in this tale), the story revolves around an Egyptian Jew named Dawood, whose life is turned upside down after the Military Coup d'etat and Nasser takes over as the first Egyptian President. After the jubilation and the first rays of hope die down, Dawood discovers that he's not welcome in his own country anymore, because he is a Jew. Meleika's novel dissects the Egyptian psyche, Nasser's and Sadat's regimes (warts and all), and the dual nature of War (it unites people under a cause, yet it reveals the ugliness and the weaknesses hidden within, which are only revealed under duress). Meleika also weaves a mythic thread into the tale, with a subplot involving a silver ring - hence the title of the novel - that Dawood buys from an old merchant, and which, seemingly, has mystical powers. Meleika uses the ring as a sort of McGuffin, a talisman that several characters, with various motives, want to wield in times of trouble. Arguably, the ring stands for clinging on to a straw during hard times, and for the power of faith, as well.

Spanning four decades of Egyptian history, with numerous characters and plot-lines, this a sweeping, ambitious, stylish novel, that is waiting to be discovered, read and analyzed; even if, at times, it becomes too sprawling for its own good. A masterpiece of modern Egyptian literature.

Book Review: The Waves of Autumn (أمواج الخريف) by Na'iem Sabry: This deceptively simple novel is a joy to read. With a straight-forward style, ebullient storytelling, and a masterful descriptive ability, writer Naiem Sabry does wonders with a cliched, simple plot. A sixty-year old artist vacationing in Rodos, Greece, discovers a new side to his personality when he decides to have an affair with a fellow traveler. But along with this newly found passion, he also discovers a hidden, lingering sense of regret buried deep within himself. He tries to confront himself and his weaknesses by seizing the day and making one daring choice after another, in an attempt to bring change into his life. But he discovers that change comes at a price. I couldn't tell you anymore of the plot, as it would be unfair to you and to the novel, which is brilliantly written and always one step ahead of the reader.

This novel, which reads like a collaboration between Henry James and Egyptian novelist Youssef El Seba'ey, is a touching, well-plotted tale, right down to its sad and darkly humorous ending.

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