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Taking the Measure of Egypt's Nobel Laureate : THE BEGINNING AND THE END by Naguib Mahfouz (Doubleday: $19.95; 412 pp.) : WEDDING SONG by Naguib Mahfouz (Doubleday: $16.95, cloth; $7.95, paper; 174 pp.) : THE THIEF AND THE DOGS by Naguib Mahfouz (Doubleday: $16.95, cloth; 7.95, paper; 158 pp.)

November 12, 1989|Muhammad Siddiq | Siddiq, an Israeli Arab, is a professor of Arabic and Hebrew literature at UC, Berkeley

Conventional critical wisdom usually divides the works of Naguib Mahfouz into four more or less distinct phases. The first of these, the historical phase, borrows its designation from the subject matter (ancient Egyptian history) of the historical trilogy that Mahfouz published between 1938-1945. The second spans the period 1945-1957 and is often defined in terms of the dominant literary technique in which Mahfouz then wrote; namely, social realism. The realistic novels of this period established Mahfouz as a major novelist in the Arab world. "The Beginning and the End" first published in Arabic in 1949) belongs to this phase and is widely representative of the novels of this period. The third phase (1959-1967) is sometimes defined in terms of subject matter as "existential" or "psychological" and sometimes in terms of narrative technique as "symbolic." To this phase belongs the second of our three novels: "The Thief and the Dogs" (originally published in 1961). The third novel under review, "Wedding Song," was published in 1981, and thus belongs to the fourth phase of Mahfouz's work. Although more than half of Mahfouz's 50-odd novels and collections of short stories belong to this phase, it has remained frozen under the nondescript chronological designation, "the post-1967 phase." The cause of this vagary does not lie entirely with the critics: The pace of change in Mahfouz's style, narrative technique, and general orientation since 1967 has been nothing short of frantic. No recognizable literary or intellectual pattern has emerged yet from the diverse works of this period.

Questions of periodization aside, Mahfouz's art rests primarily on its powerful evocation of the social and psychological reality of that segment of Egyptian society with which he is intimately familiar: the Cairene petite bourgeoisie. Mahfouz undertakes this task of representation with a seemingly unshakable faith in the referential power of language and of contrived fictional structures to deliver reality. As a result, his novels often appear blissfully oblivious to the problematics of self-consciousness and singularly uninterested in theoretical questions about the arbitrary nature of linguistic signs or the transparency of writing strategies and literary devices. Therefore, readers weaned on the pervasive presence of these concerns in modernist and post-modernist writing will inevitably find Mahfouz's novels somewhat quaint, if not altogether passe.

In structure and narrative technique, Mahfouz's fiction shows greater affinity with the main tradition of the Western novel than it does with the indigenous narrative forms prevalent in Arab culture. This is particularly true of the first three phases of his career. In part, this anomaly is the product of historical circumstances: The novel genre was borrowed into Arab culture from the West during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although an impressive narrative tradition existed in Arabic (witness the "Arabian Nights") there were no Arabic novels in the Western sense of the term before 1913. (Mahfouz was born in 1911). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Mahfouz and the pioneering Arab writers of his generation, should strive to emulate Western models of the genre even as they were acclimatizing it in Arabic.

To the inexorable pressures of historical urgency, however, one must add Mahfouz's personal aptitude: In his public pronouncements, Mahfouz makes no secret of his philosophical and intellectual identification with the secular outlook of modern Western civilization. Moreover, it is precisely because the novel has expressed more fully than any other literary genre the scientific and secular principles of this civilization that it has exercised such a formative influence on his imagination and literary sensibility. The preponderance of secular Western ideas in Mahfouz's fiction is therefore entirely consistent with his philosophical and artistic commitment.

Hence a potential irony: In the works of this major Arab novelist one encounters the ideas of Schopenhauer, Darwin, Marx, and Freud more often than those of any Arab or Islamic thinker. In fact, the collective genius of Arab/Islamic civilization is invoked by reference and allusion in Emil Habiby's single novel, "The Pessoptimist," more than it is in all of Mahfouz's novels combined. The increasing recourse to indigenous and traditional forms of narrative and storytelling one detects in the works of younger Arab writers in Egypt (e.g. Jamal al-Ghaytani) and elsewhere in the Arab world may be a reaction against the excessive reliance of Mahfouz and his generation on Western fictional models.

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