Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Book Reviews

Book Review: The Effendi (الأفندى) by Mohamed Nagui: On the surface, Mohamed Nagui's The Effendi looks like another one of those anger-laden books about the corruption eating contemporary Egypt from the inside out. But delve deeper into this wonderfully realized piece of literature, and you discover that this novel offers much more than that. Nagui uses the by now cliched template of the Egyptian young man who snakes his way up using unethical short-cuts and sleight-of-hand, and turns it over its head by writing something closer to a modern fairytale.

The story revolves around Habib-Allah a.k.a The Effendi, an Egyptian young man from a poor family, who after the death of his mother, and realizing that his aging father will not be able to save Habib from a life of poverty, decides to grab any opportunity that comes his way, no matter how shady it is. He starts to deal in US dollars in the Black Market, with the help of a young woman called Nazek, a pathological liar (who believes her mother was a "blessed woman" who spent all her life fighting a person she refers to as "The Fallen", a mythical creature akin to The Devil), and whom, as life goes on, becomes Habib's mistress. From then on, Habib-Allah begins to rise and rise, doing everything from event-organizing for a rich, spoiled young woman from The Gulf, to making deals with embezzlers to buy cheap land and sell it for tons of money, to, finally, becoming a producer of motion pictures, with the help of a pretentious, elitist wanna-be writer called Fayez.

Although Nagui's prose ranges from sublime to serviceable, his storytelling is hypnotic. His characters - many of which are pretty off-kilter - are vividly drawn, and his plotting is good. But it is his grasp of atmosphere and the strangely beautiful mythical interludes about "The Fallen", that make this novel a rich, singular piece of work.

Rich with symbolism and layered with ideas, this thought-provoking, dark novel about hypocrisy, regret, selling your soul for financial gain and social esteem, and people who spend their lives chasing phantoms, deserves to be savored.

* Available from Dar Al-Hilal.

Book Review: The Palm House (بيت النخيل) by Tarek Eltayeb: I previously reviewed Tarek Eltayeb's first novel, Cities Without Palms, and found it to be a stylish if cliched piece of work. It was the work of a novice storyteller who despite his surprising mastery of sheer storytelling momentum, didn't have a lot to say, and whose plotting was average at best.

Not here, though. With The Palm House, which, according to the author, took seven years to complete, Eltayeb proves himself to be one of the most talented storytellers to come out of Egypt and the Arab world.

The novel, which is a sequel to Cities Without Palms, follows Hamza (the protagonist of Cities Without Palms) as he struggles to survive in Vienna, his latest home. Working as a newspaper vendor, and with only a cat as a housemate, Hamza's life is dull, oppressive, and lonely. But all that changes when he meets Sandra, a young Viennese woman who, after knowing that he used to live in a village filled with palm trees, reveals to him that there is a museum in Vienna called The Palm House, which features nothing but real palms. Together, Hamza and Sandra visit The Palm House and, slowly, begin to fall in love. As their love deepens, Sandra asks Hamza to share his life-story with her. And so Hamza, over the course of three years, tells her his story: His life as a young boy living in a secluded Sudanese village, the death of his family, his pilgrimage to Cairo, his travels around the world, and, finally, his landing in Vienna, looking for sanctuary and a new beginning.

First, let's get this out of the way: This is a melodrama. It is a story filled with tribulations, tragedies, adventures, and triumphs of the human spirit, many of which are far-fetched and held together by coincidence. In the hands of a lesser storyteller, this novel would have been boring and implausible. But Eltayeb isn't such a storyteller. He is a hugely talented writer, whose smooth prose, his obvious love of telling tales (including tall ones), his seamless plotting, and his ability to draw realistic, memorable characters, make this one enjoyable journey. And a journey it is! This novel is filled with quests, travels, confrontations, love-affairs, eccentrics, romantics, and tales within tales, which makes it just a tad too long. But Eltayeb's unique style makes it an effortless read that never lags, and never becomes anything but a joy to go through.

It is a testament to Eltayeb's skills as a writer, that even the cliched ending packs an emotional punch and has a strong bitter-sweet feel to it.

This is a marvelous novel about being a stranger in a strange land, and about lonely people trying to find comfort in each other. But, above all, this is a novel about storytelling, its magic, and its power to heal. Unmissable.

* Available from Al-Hadara Publishing.

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