Since realistic fiction is ultimately referable to history, the aesthetic can never be profitably divorced from the political and social in Mahfouz's fiction, no more than it can be in the work of any major Third World writer. As Fredrick Jameson has noted, fictional texts viewed within the context of the national quest of Third World societies for a distinctive political and cultural identity acquire the status of national allegories. This is not to say that such fiction is lacking in universal significance, only that the universal is packaged in a concrete particularity of local color and specific national setting.
How intimately related the aesthetic and the political are in Mahfouz's outlook can be gathered from the following anecdote. At the advent of the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, Mahfouz gave up writing fiction for seven years. The reason, he later explained, was his conviction that, since the declared objective of the revolution was to cure the social ills that he was dramatizing in his fiction, his task as a novelist had become superfluous. It was only after he had become disillusioned with the rule of Nasser and his fellow officers that he resumed writing fiction in 1959.
The novel he wrote after this interruption brought him into a close brush with the religious establishment of Egypt. "Children of Gebalawi" (1959) treats allegorically the history of monotheism by drawing characters whose names and actions evoke the figures of God, Adam, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Considered sacrilegious and banned from publication in Egypt, the novel was eventually published in Lebanon. The Egyptian publishing house that has exclusive rights to publishing Mahfouz's works in Arabic still omits mention of this novel in its listing of the author's works.
Mahfouz's fiction took yet another turn in the early '60s, this time an inward turn. The six novels and two collections of short stories he published between 1961 and 1967 deal with severe existential and spiritual crises in a hauntingly lyrical style. Modernistic narrative techniques such as the interior monologue, fragmented plots, disjointed time schemes and free association predominate in the fiction of this phase. The following passage from "Miramar," published shortly before the outbreak of the 1967 war, captures the sense of impending disaster (projected on the sea) and reveals Mahfouz's adroitness at weaving into artistic unity elements from the private and public domains. The monologue belongs to a bankrupt playboy whose aristocratic family the 1952 Revolution dispossessed of all but "a hundred feddans" of land and whose fiancee, "Miss Blue Eyes," has just left him:
"Ferekeeko, don't put the blame on me. The face of the sea is dark, mottled, blue from stifled wrath: There is unappeased rage in the ceaseless hammering of the waves. Revolution! Why not? To put you where you belong, you progeny of whores, to take all your money and push your noses in the mud. Sure, I'm one of you. And I know it. That, unfortunately, is something that can't be changed. 'No education,' she said, 'and a hazardous hundred \o7 feddans\f7 .' That's what Miss Blue Eyes said, as she slammed the door in my face and sat down behind to wait for the next prospective stud-bull to come along."
Since 1967, Mahfouz has written 16 more novels and 10 more collections of short stories. These vary greatly in thematic and stylistic features and defy easy categorization. They include an epic, a novel in the traditional Arabic travel genre, a fictional autobiography, a variation on the Arabian Nights, a "Dialogue With Egypt's Leaders: From Mena to Sadat," and, only last year, a serialized novel in Egypt's major newspaper, \o7 Al-Ahram\f7 . During a private conversation in Cairo last year, a leading writer of the younger generation confided to me a grudging recognition of Mahfouz's amazing versatility and prolific output. "Before any younger writer sits down to write anything he must make sure that Mahfouz has not already written that novel. And if he is lucky and Mahfouz hasn't done it already, that is still no guarantee that he will not have done so before the younger writer gets around to writing his."
\o7 Editor's note: Works by Naguib Mahfouz in English translation are available from two American publishers: Columbia University Press, 562 West 113 St., New York 10025, and Three Continents Press, 1636 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20009.