Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Book Reviews

Book Review: The Search (الطريق) by Naguib Mahfouz: Reviewing any piece of work by Naguib Mahfouz is a risky proposition. His work is both loved and over-analyzed; both cherished and reviled (yes, to this day, there are some people, especially Uber-Conservative Egyptians, who consider his work to be "immoral," due to Mahfouz's unflinching eye when it comes to describing some of the seedier aspects of Egyptian life). I have already attempted to review one of my favorite books of his, Midaq Alley (زقاق المدق). And I am going to try once more, with another of my favorites, The Search (الطريق).

The Search is, far and away, Mahfouz's most noirish work. The story of Saber, the son of a prostitute, who is forced, after his mother's death, to search for his absentee father, whom his mother claims is an "Egyptian gentleman" who will able to save him from an ugly life of pimping and petty-crime, is chock-full of all the main ingredients of livre-noir: The troubled anti-hero with a sordid past, the search for something elusive that promises salvation, the femme-fatale, and the overpowering sense of doom. Although Naguib Mahfouz's tales almost always have a norish bent, The Search is, arguably, his most obvious attempt at writing a piece of vintage noir. The sharp, hard-hitting dialogue, the descriptions of Cairo by night, the extremely complex character of Saber, who, throughout the tale, struggles with his own demons and penchant for violence and crime, the fast-pace, the downbeat, borderline nihilistic ending, all combine to make this a masterpiece of crime fiction, similar to the best works of James M. Cain.

A somewhat lesser-known part of his oeuvre, The Search is a fascinating novel that showcases Mahfouz at his most stylistically daring, and is a must for fans of livre-noir.

Book Review: Cities Without Palms (مدن بلا نخيل) by Tarek Eltayeb: Cities Without Palms by Tarek Eltayeb is an example of style over substance. The story (about a young Sudanese man who leaves his drought-stricken village and embarks on a journey to find money to support his family) is cliched, the plotting just about average, and the characters, although memorable, are not meticulously drawn. But its stylishness saves it. Author Eltayeb's style of prose and his superb command of pacing, turns this simple, ordinary tale into a compelling, fast-paced novella that is hard to put down once you start reading it. Also, Eltayaeb's masterful grasp of atmosphere and his ability to vividly describe a place with just a few well-chosen words, is in itself a marvel. And like all good writers, he makes it look easy, when really it isn't.

I for one can't wait to delve deeper into this writer's body of work (this is his first novel, originally published in 1992), which consists of several novels and short story collections, one of which is House Of Palms (بيت النخيل), a sequel to this novel. On its own, Cities Without Palms is a quick, enjoyable read, that promises great things to come.

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