Naguib Mahfouz - The Time and the Place
Cairo, like Bellow's Chicago or Hugo's Paris, is the muse from which Naguib Mahfouz's literature springs. The majority of his vast output is located within Egypt's capital, and the man himself left the city once each year for a holiday, and rarely - twice in his lifetime - left his home country. The Time and the Place, a collection of short stories taken from the years 19xx - 19xx, are, except for one brief excursion, placed entirely within Cairo. They represent a wide selection from Mahfouz's writing, in style and range, and there are a large number from his darkest period of writing, the late 1960s, following Egypt's war with Israel.
Thematically, these stories circle death, and the passing of time, with a wary, knowing eye. The war with Israel plunged Mahfouz into a bleak depression, and for a time he left novel writing to focus on short stories, and - at his darkest - he toyed with abandoning writing altogether. This darkness is evident in a number of stories, such as 'At the Bus Stop', which recounts a brutal orgy of murder and copulation in an eerily dispassionate narrative voice that shows the startled onlookers treating everything as scenes from an upcoming movie, side-stepping the reality of what they are seeing, even when a severed head rolls their way. In another, 'Fear', we are witness the trials of a beautiful woman's father as she is propositioned first by a man she loves, and then by the two gangster leaders who rule the alley between the Da'bas and Halwagi quarter. The story ends with the woman accepting none of them, her life lived bitterly and with regret, her temperament shifted from pleasing and kind to scornful and shrew-like.
Avoiding death a moment, the range of Mahfouz's stories is wide and far-reaching. There is a story that touch on an almost Borgesian intricacy, as a Detective explores the city in search of a mysterious killer. 'Half a Day' containts similarities to John Cheever's masterpiece, 'The Swimmer'. In addition to those there is an odd twist on magic realism in 'The Norwegian Rat', and a number of firmly realist works, from the story of a poor boy purchasing beans for his mother, to the poor girl tricked into marriage by her tutor in 'The Answer is No'.
Much of Islam revolves around the knowledge, and acceptance, of death. Mahfouz's characters are religious in the way that a Western author's characters are introspective - it's just the way they are. God is omnipresent, and his wrath, and compassion, is always and forever. Characters admonish one another with his name, they lament bad times with his blessing, and they comment upon his compassion, generosity, or anger, in much the same way a Western author's characters would discuss the weather. This closeness to religion provides a vast distinction between Mahfouz and his Western contemporaries, who were often more concerned with either demolishing, or ignoring, the influence of God in a person's ordinary life. Thanks to all this, Sheiks play an important part of an Egyptian's life, and the mysticism of Islam raises its head again and again. For a reviewer who remains mostly ignorant of Islam, I cannot honestly say whether Mahfouz is accurate or not with his rendition of religion, but I can say that it 'feels' right, and that such notes as he plays could only be sounded by one familiar from birth to death with the encompassing cloak of Islam. Mahfouz uses this to spin webs of magic that lurk in the background, something to be sensed but not seen. The power of religion is firmly felt, though it is rarely, if ever, made explicit.
The stories are of a piece in the sense that they combine to create a wholly complete sense of place. The concept of an author's 'panoramic vision' has for many years been a cliche, but in Mahfouz's case it rings true. He is able to write from the highest strata of society to the low areas where villains and thieves rub up against poor Sheikhs and widowed old women eking out an existence any way they can. Yet Mahfouz is an oddly unsympathetic narrator. His stories are confident in their use of voice, but he manages to avoid the pitfalls of identifying too closely with the characters he is portraying. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage, though it suits the purposes of these stories well. By refusing to align himself with the motives and temperaments of his characters - by instead choosing to locate and identify their motives, feelings, and desires - he is able to best portray the character of Cairo, creating a rich, vibrant city that breathes and hums with the echo of life.
The overwhelming sense of the collection is that it is an excellent place for a reader to begin with Mahfouz. He wrote many, many novels, and volumes of short stories. The Time and the Place offers a wide enough selection of themes and styles - while remaining cohesive and contained, which at times seems something of a miracle of talent - that a firm sense of Mahfouz as a writer is gained. He shows us that the Arab world, that Islam, that Egypt and, finally, Cairo, are broad enough and deep enough to encompass everything, which is something akin to what Borges shows us, or Bellow, or Roth, or any number of first-rate authors. A writer tends to stake his sense of literature when young and refine it into old age, and Mahfouz is no different. His chosen swath of literature is large, but his talent is larger.
||The Time and the Place
(Taken from various Egyptian publications)
||Anchor Books (Random House)|
Other works by Naguib Mahfouz under review:
---Adrift on the Nile
---Before the Throne
---The Thief and the Dogs
Guardian (UK) - Obituary