Ah, the emptiness of life. Anis Zaki has been working on a report, titled, Report on Incoming Correspondence for the month of March – for the attention of the Director General of the Archives Department. An exceptionally interesting report, surely, but unfortunately Anis was so deadened by his life that he failed to notice his pen had run out of ink after the first line. Anis pleads illness, but his boss says to him,
There are limits to my patience. But there is no end to a slippery slope. Do not tumble down it. You are in your forties, which should be a time of maturity. So stop this tomfoolery.
Anis, in response, ignores his colleagues and returns to work.
He took an inkwell out of the drawer and began to fill his pen. He would have to rewrite the report. “Movements of Incoming Correspondence.” It was not a movement at all, really. It was a revolution around a fixed axis, round and round, distracted by its own futility. Round and round it went, and the only thing that come of it was an endless revolution. And in the whirling giddiness everything of value disappeared: medicine and science and law, family forgotten back home in the village, a wife and small daughter lying under the earth. Words once blazing with zeal now buried under a mountain of ice...
But Anis is not alone in this. In Naguib Mahfouz's Adrift on the Nile, there are many characters in a similar situation. They are adrift, literally and figuratively, their lives paused in thrall of the water-pipe (or hookah), as they talk, and smoke, and talk, and smoke. And little else. Anis is a smart fellow, but so are his friends. They spend their evenings and their nights on a houseboat on the Nile, smoking and discussing, expending their considerably intellectual abilities in the fruitless pursuit of nothing at all. Anyone can become intoxicated and declaim at length – and thus, Anis' friends.
A character describes Anis as,
Anis Zaki, civil servant in the Ministry of Health, and the company's master of ceremonies and Minister for Pipe-Smoking Affairs. A man as cultured as your good self – this is his library – who has made the rounds of Medicine, Science, and Law faculties, each time departing – like any good man unconcerned with appearances – with knowledge and not qualifications. He is from a respectable country family, but has lived alone in Cairo for a long time; he is quite a cosmopolitan now. Don't take his silence amiss – he seldom speaks, roaming as he does in another realm entirely.
And goes on to describe Anis' houseboat companions in a similar vein. In short, they are farcical, their traits enlarged and made into caricatures, their lives shown as empty and meaningless, even to themselves. As one of Anis' friends says,
But what is the point, whether you remain on this earth or depart? Or whether you live as long as the turtle?
Mahfouz splits his novel into a number of short chapters, with each one bookended (or at least, ended) with Anis' metaphysical musings on the world and its foibles. There are women on this houseboat, intellectual women, playwrights and university students, and beautiful women, too. Though it's not a harem and the women seem, to Anis and his friends, almost anti-sexual, in that they don't even perceive them as women so much as not-men. Yet they contribute, and observe, and colour the discussions – though, like Anis and his friends, to no great effect.
Chapter Ten shifts the novel away from the philosophical revelry, and instead begins a series of brief sections devoted to the explanation of a play, the one we assume is being written by Samara, one of the female characters referred to above. Mahfouz writes,
Absurdity is the loss of meaning, the meaning of anything. The collapse of belief – belief in anything. It is a passage through life propelled by necessity alone, without convinction, without real hope. This is reflected in the character in the form of dissipation and nihilism, and heroism is transformed into mockery and myth. Good and evil are equal; and one is adopted over the other – if adopted at all – with the simple motive of egotism, or cowardice, or opportunism. All values perish, and civilization comes to an end.
Samara goes on to provide snapshots of each of the characters, the names and biographies of which exactly align with the men on the houseboat. These paragraphs offer up a nice parallel to Ragab's more exuberant descriptions earlier in the story, but it also allows Mahfouz the luxury of deconstructing his novel midway through its progression. He comments on the themes and motifs of his work, identifying potential weak spots, and highlighting areas which should have further development. He is also able, through this self-criticism, to comment on the nature of existentialism and absurdity, the two genres in which the novel lies. For this novel full of thinking, we can now add the layer of Mahfouz's thoughts on top of the character's. Of course, Mahfouz allows himself a touch of narrative distance by having the writing come from Samara, but the effect is the same – we now have the writer's thoughts (Samara is, obviously, also a writer) on what is being written.
After this astonishing section, Mahfouz settles back down to his circle of characters. They are unwholesome people, missing something, though they don't know what. They are happy to philosophise, but their words are empty, and float away into the air like so many soap bubbles. Imagine an intoxicated evening, past midnight, when the empty wine bottles outnumber the people, and still the words flow. What truth, really, does a person have to offer at that stage? What is left for them to say but to dredge up some ill-formed feeling, an explanation of something they can't explain, which is to say a muddle of thoughts, feeling, and memories. The drunken hour offers little of any real use, and yet this time is all the time that Anis and his friends have – it's all they are willing to allow themselves, and all they want from each other. Intoxication is all, because existentialism is all. But unlike Camus' belief that, in the face of this crushing existentialism, that one must embrace personal freedom and find worth in the achievement of doing, Mahfouz' characters simply are, and what they are is unhappy, unfulfilled, angry, and discontent. They don't know it, or at least not yet.
A disturbing event toward the end of the novel shatters the complacent existence of the characters, and particularly Anis. Those shaken by the event argue with those who were not, and it becomes clear to Anis that the existential, philosophic leanings of his friends were in fact a very different beast – laziness and disengagement with anything, including themselves. They do not have a philosophy of life, they just like to use the water-pipe to get high. They aren't exalted intellectuals discussing the problems of the world – they are stoners, wasting their lives and already well into middle-age without anything to show for it. The ugliness of their lives is revealed to Anis, and the ugliness of his own. He sees now what he had done to himself.
Mahfouz uses this event to sharply delineate his characters, placing those truly in thrall to the water-pipe on one side, and those who seek its melancholic embrace while wishing for a better life, in the other. Neither group is shown as being particularly better, and it is to Mahfouz' credit that he is even-handed with all his characters. Mahfouz seeks less to pick winners and losers, than he is interested in highlighting the peculiar ennui that afflicts the very intelligent, those who cannot, for whatever reason, comfortably fit themselves in to what we consider ordinary society, and instead must come up with their own ways of coping with the inherent melancholy of life. Mafouz' characters, at least in Adrift on the Nile, seek solace in illicit substances, but the theme remains coherent and universal. It is not enough for the intellectuals of our time (any time) to simply remain above and beyond the troubles of the day. They must interact, and when they do, they must also be willing to come to terms with the realisation that their learning, and their wisdom, and their reflections, do not necessarily equip them with the skills and tools required to cope with everyday life.
||Adrift on the Nile
(Original Title: Tharthara Fawq al Nil)
Titles by Mahfouz also under review:
---Before the Throne
---The Thief and the Dogs
---The Time and the Place
"who, through works rich in nuance - now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous - has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind" - Nobel Citation in Literature 1988