Two Brothers

Khan al-Khalili, Naguib Mahfouz, 1945

Khan al-Khalili is about failure and disappointment. It is about professional failure, and it is about failure in love.

Khan al-Khalili involves poverty. Unlike Cairo Modern (1945), Mahfouz’s preceding novel, Khan al-Khalili does not depict absolute poverty.

Ahmad Akif, the protagonist of Khan al-Khalili, certainly does not earn much money. Akif has been in the lowest grade of the civil service for twenty years. His father was compulsorily retired at forty, and has only a small pension.

Akif is often worried about small sums. Yet he usually manages to save a small amount each month. This is a form of poverty, but it is relative. It is not destitution.

Khan al-Khalili is even more precisely dated than Cairo Modern. The action of Cairo Modern takes place in over a few months in 1932 and 1933. Khan al-Khalili begins during the Second World War, in September 1941. It ends in 1942, just as the Axis forces under Rommel have reached the westernmost point of their advance into Egypt: ‘…when the invasion reached as far as al-Alamein, general panic reached its height.’ (Chapter 50).

This is ironic. The reader knows, though the characters do not, that the Germans and their allies are about to be forced back.

While the war affects the inhabitants of Cairo – particularly, in Khan al-Khalili, in the form of air raids – it is not their war. Many of them support the Germans. There are rather wild rumours circulating about the favourable treatment that Hitler is planning for the Muslims when Germany wins. ‘” [Hitler] is going to restore Islam to its former glory. He will unite the Muslim peoples.”’ (8).

The disruption caused by German air raids is also important in Sugar Street (1957), the last part of The Cairo Trilogy, and in Midaq Alley (1947). In Sugar Street the patriarch, Al-Sayyid Ahmad ‘Abd al-Jawad, who is already bedridden, dies after leaving his house to take shelter in an air-raid. In Midaq Alley, the importance of the war is the economic opportunities, both legitimate and illegitimate, presented – particularly for the ordinary inhabitants of Cairo – by the presence there of British forces and their headquarters and depots.

Khan al-Khalili blends, as every good novel should do, several stories. There is a story about Ahmad Akif, a civil servant who after twenty years is still in the lowest grade of the service. The date, Akif’s social status and his alienation are all made clear right at the beginning of the novel. ‘It was half-past two in the afternoon on a September day in 1941, the exact time when civil servants left their government offices…. Their minds had long since become preoccupied with a combination of hunger and sheer boredom….’ (1). Mahfouz was himself a lifelong civil servant. He writes about the civil service often. Sometimes he writes about the civil service quite bitterly.

There is another story about Ahmad’s immediate family – himself and his parents – leaving the district of al-Sakakini, where they have lived for a long time, in a panic over an air raid, and moving to the popular quarter of Khan al-Khalili.

The air raid, the first of the war, was unexpected and distressing. ‘Maybe tonight would turn out to be the first time he managed to get any sleep since that terrible night, the one that had given the people of Cairo such a terrible shock.’ (1).

The air raid is not however described in detail for another couple of chapters. There was ‘… an incredibly bright light in the sky. It was followed by a horrible screeching sound and a loud explosion that reverberated across the city of Cairo…. the ground shook and the house kept on rattling.’ (3).

It is not the air war between the European powers that is important. It is the disruption of family life.

The move is not particularly rational. ‘”Don’t you realise, Papa, that the airmen flying over Cairo aren’t going to distinguish between al-Sakakini and Khan al-Khalili?”’ (1). Ahmad’s father tries to rationalise the move on religious grounds. ‘”The Germans are too intelligent to bomb the heart of Islam [the mosque of al-Husain] when they are trying to win us over.”’ (1).

The mosque of al-Husain is an important Cairo monument. Husain ibn Ali was the grandson of Muhammad. Husain was a Shia imam and a martyr. Husain’s head was believed to be buried in the al-Husain mosque. The mosque was a shrine. Visiting shrines, such as tombs of the saints, is an important part of a popular tradition in Islam which is sometimes identified with Sufism.

Khan al-Khalili is a quarter that was ‘…of lower status in both prestige and educational level.’ (1). It is, as we shall see, a socially conservative quarter. Khan al-Khalili is also one of the old quarters of Cairo. It gives ‘…to the viewer an impression of the Cairo of al-Mu’izzi’s time.’ (1).

Al-Muʿizzi was apparently the most powerful of the Fatimid caliphs, whose armies conquered Egypt and who made the newly founded Al-Qahirah, or Cairo, his capital in 972–973. (Britannica). The idea of the connection of Cairo with a remote past is something that Mahfouz explores again in Children of the Alley (1959).

The description of the quarter in the novel is fairly limited: a neighbour family, the walk their teenage daughter takes to school past the Cairo necropolis, a café that Ahmad takes to frequenting, a visit – just one – to the neighbourhood brothel which doubles as a hashish den, and the air raid shelter – several times. This is however the first time that Mahfouz has described a quarter of modern Cairo in one of his novels. It is something he often does later, and clearly loves doing.

Mahfouz was born and spent his early childhood in the popular quarter of Gamaliya, which he describes in the Cairo Trilogy, and again – with extraordinary imagination – in Children of the Alley. Gamaliya is near Khan al-Khalili. ‘Abd al-Jawad, the patriarch, leads his sons to the al-Husain mosque every Friday for prayers. When al-Jawad stops secluding his wife Amina as strictly as he does originally, Amina likes nothing better than to visit the shrine of al-Husain.

At the end of Khan al-Khalili, following the death of Ahmad’s younger brother Rushdi, the family leave the quarter. Ahmad’s father wanted to move there. Ahmad’s mother wants to leave. ‘”This is an unlucky quarter. Let’s get out of here…!”’ (48).

The family move at the beginning of the novel, and leave at the end. Their stay in Khan al-Khalili is neatly co-extensive with the novel. This gives the novel a precise formal unity.

Mahfouz’s formal ‘experiments’, as they are often known, come later. They start with Children of the Alley, in which Mahfouz adapts episodes from the sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions to make a political allegory. They continue with Mirrors (1972), a novel in the form of character sketches. Mahfouz was to write several other explicitly ‘experimental’ novels. Form, however, is something at which Mahfouz was always skilful, if sometimes unostentatiously so.

In addition to the story of Ahmad, the unsuccessful civil servant, and the story of his family’s unexpectedly short-lived move to Khan al-Khalili, there is a story of the pursuit of Nawal, the teenage daughter of new neighbours, by both Ahmad and his younger brother. There is also a story about Rushdi, the younger brother, and his sickness and death from tuberculosis. It is through the integration of the stories of love and death that both the deeper meaning of the novel, and also its connection with later – and, it must be said, better – work is revealed.

Mahfouz’s description of Ahmad Akif, the protagonist of Khan al-Khalili, is almost as contemptuous as that of Ma’mun Radwan in Cairo Modern. Ma’mun Radwan is immoral; Ahmad Akif is inadequate.

Ahmad resents the fact he was unable to continue his education and take a university degree. He thinks this has held him back: ‘…he had been compelled to abandon his studies after his high-school graduation…. The major reason for the decision was that his father had been pensioned off before he had even reached the age of forty…. Ahmad had been forced to terminate his studies and take a minor administrative post in order to provide for his shattered family and support his two younger brothers.’ (2).

Ahmad spends many years and much effort trying to compensate for this sense of loss. He feels he is a victim: ‘…he kept searching for ways to rid himself of his chains and beat a path to freedom, glory and authority.’ (2).

Ahmad studies privately for the law. ‘He failed in two subjects…. He was scared to try the exam again….’ (2).

Ahmad spends a year reading science texts, with no better result. He rationalises his lack of success. ‘The intellectual atmosphere in Egypt in general was not yet ready for science.’ (2).

Ahmad decides to try literature. ‘When [the piece] was finished, he sent it by mail to a journal….’ (2).His efforts are ignored. Ahmad rationalises his failure. ‘It was all a question of malice and evil intent….’ (2).

Finally Ahmad resorts to magic. He borrows ‘… some ancient tomes dealing with magic and the invocation of demons….’ (2). Ahmad has at least the sense to get out before he gets too far in.  ‘His health deteriorated rapidly and he felt the approach of insanity and death.’ (2).

Despite the failure of his academic and literary efforts, Ahmad remains bookish: ‘…his beloved books, all of them in Arabic…. were his entire life.’ (2). His reading is however superficial: ‘…there was no specialisation or depth involved.’ (2).

Ahmad’s repeated failures turn him against the world. ‘”The whole world consists of lies and vanities; in such a context the quest for glory is the acme of lies and vanities.”’ (2).

Mahfouz does not like his protagonist. He did not like Ma’mun Radwan in Cairo Modern either.

There is I think a problem with unsympathetic protagonists in novels. If readers cannot empathise with the central figure, it is quite difficult to care about the world of the novel.

In addition to being a failure, Ahmad is unattractive. He is ‘…approaching his forties.’ (1). He has a ‘…shining, elongated face….’ (1). He has ‘…teeth yellowed by smoking.’ (1).

He does not look after himself: ‘…a combination of despair and thriftiness, followed by a peculiar adaptation to look like an intellectual, had robbed him of any concern about either his person or his manner of dress.’ (1). Despite this, he has a ‘…secret craving for sex…’ which ‘…gnawed at him….’ (1). Ahmad’s unattractiveness and his interest in sex, in a novel which deals in large part with delusions of love, are important traits.

Ahmad never accepts his failure. He never accepts his humble position in life.

Ahmad’s father is also a failure. He withdraws.

In the new flat Akif Effendi Ahmad is ‘…huddled in his room as usual.’ (1). Akif Ahmad reads the Qur’an and attends the mosque. ‘After he had been pensioned off in the very midst of his working life… he had imposed a severe isolation on himself. He seemed to be spending his entire life on devotions and Qur’an recitation.’ (4).

Ahmad not only takes over the financial responsibility for the family. He takes many of the decisions which would normally be the responsibility of the head of the household, and has a parental relationship with his younger brother. ‘…Ahmad followed the instructions of the doctor… and immediately started making arrangements to have Rushdi admitted to the sanatorium.’ (39).

Mahfouz does not however allow this consciousness of responsibility to enhance Ahmad’s self-esteem. That would be inconsistent with the emphasis on Ahmad’s failure.

Father and son are both failures. They are both passive. Akif Effendi Ahmad does not object to Ahmad taking over his role. There is thus no conflict – as there is very strongly in The Mirage (1948), The Cairo Trilogy and Children of the Alley – between father and son.

Akif Effendi Ahmad is not a patriarch. Ahmad Akif does not have to struggle for his freedom. The focus of the novel, therefore, is not the struggle between generations and within families that is so important in Mahfouz’s later work. We will need to identify later what the focus in fact is.

The main action of the novel concerns the romantic interest of both the brothers in Nawal, the teenage daughter of their neighbour Kamal Khalil Effendi. Ahmad sees her first.

Rushdi is mentioned, if indirectly, right at the beginning of the book, ‘… the second [of the two rooms off the hallway] was to be put aside for [Ahmad’s] brother and kept empty for him.’(1). He does not appear until much later; a third of the way through the book. This is when Rushdi receives an order ‘…transferring him from Asyut [where he works in a branch of Bank Misr] to the headquarters in Cairo.’ (15).

Since the dramatic climax of the book is Rushdi’s death from tuberculosis, this delay in introducing him is rather curious. Important characters all ideally need to be introduced in the first two or three chapters. This is a consequence of the over-riding rule of story, that the end of a story is always contained in the beginning.

Ahmad first meets Nawal on the stairs of the building. It is an unexpected encounter.

Ahmad is shy. ‘Looking round he saw a young girl wearing a blue school-jumper with a satchel of books under her arm. For a fleeting second their eyes met, then he looked away feeling all confused, something that always happened when he looked at a female.’ (4).

Ahmad is anxious and inexperienced: ‘…his love for women was the forbidden love of a middle-aged man that made his as afraid of them as a shy novice.’ (4). The phrase ‘forbidden love’ suggests an element of guilt.

Ahmad is inhibited and withdraws in the face of difficulties. We are offered an explanation of this behaviour in terms of parental relationships. ‘His early childhood had had a profound effect on his peculiar instincts in this matter: he had been exposed to a father who dealt with him strictly and a mother who doted on him.’ (4).

Ahmad has never been successful with women. The parallel with his professional and academic failures is explicitly drawn. ‘If his complete failure to achieve anything turned him into an enemy of the entire world, then his failure with women made him their enemy too.’ (4). We are told that Ahmad has recourse to prostitutes. In the novel, this is not described.

A number of Mahfouz’s important protagonists, like Ahmad Akif in Khan al-Khalili, are sexually conflicted. These include Kamil Ru’ba in The Mirage (1948), Kamal al-Jawad in The Cairo Trilogy, and Saber Omran in The Search (1964).

The explanation in these other novels is more sophisticated, and more specific to Egyptian culture. In The Mirage and The Cairo Trilogy the mother is secluded, initially at least, and invests too much emotionally in a favourite or only son. The father is patriarchal. In The Search the mysterious, patriarchal father is largely absent, and he is given explicitly Pharaonic traits.

Ahmad is not looking for love. He has noticed how pretty Nawal is, but he has not been thinking of ways of seeing her. When he sees her again, it is by coincidence. It happens during the holy month of Ramadan. Setting some of the action during Ramadan gives Mahfouz the opportunity to show that his characters are conservative, though – with the exception, perhaps, of Akif Effendi, Ahmad’s father – not particularly religious. The holy month doesn’t stop people flirting.

Ahmad is spending time alone in his room before sundown, when he can break his fast. ‘The last hour before people broke their fast was known to be by far the toughest to live through… he decided that the best way of killing time was to open the window and look outside…. He left the window, went over to the other one that looked out on the old part of Khan al-Khalili, opened it, and leaned on the sill…. A young girl was sitting [on his neighbour’s balcony] embroidering a shawl.’ (10). It is noteworthy that Nawal, although she goes to school, is seen engaged in embroidery. Embroidery is a traditional feminine occupation.

Ahmad Rashid, Ahmad’s friend in from the Zahra Café, tutors Nawal and her brother privately. (12.)  Nawal thinks Ahmad Rashid mocks her, and dislikes him. ‘”Haven’t you thought about what you want to do at university yet?” …this young man was trying to mould her into the kind of woman that he wanted her to be….’ (21). Education, for women at that date, is modern and progressive. Nawal, beyond a certain point, is not interested.

Ahmad’s inhibitions leave him anxious, ambivalent and uncertain how to act. ‘At that fleeting moment, when their eyes met, his emotions overcame him and he blushed deep red in sheer embarrassment. He did not know how to behave or what was the best way to get out of his predicament.’ (10).

Things do not get easier for Ahmad during the following days. ‘Would it not be better, he wondered, to leave the window shut and forget about the implications involved in opening it?’ (12).

Ahmad is unable, however, to avoid the temptation of going to the window for a glimpse of the girl. ‘For a fleeting second their eyes met, but then she stood up straight, turned around, and went inside again.’ (12).

When Ahmad meets the girl and her mother in a more or less normal social situation, he cannot deal with it. ‘When he opened [the door], he found himself facing Sitt Tawhida and her daughter Nawal.’ (12).

Ahmad is so bashful that Sitt Tawhida notices: ‘…she could not understand why a man of his age could be so awkward and act so bashfully simply because he had met two women.’ (12).

Despite the fact that Ahmad is unattractive and middle aged, Nawal shows interest. ‘He no longer doubted for a single moment that the girl was well aware that her new neighbour was deliberately appearing at the window every afternoon and directing that bashful, timid glance at her.’ (13).

Ahmad finds himself unable to deal with the situation he has created. ‘Was he actually capable of launching himself into life again…?’ (13).

His response, which Mahfouz has already given us to understand is typical for him, is to feel sorry for himself. ‘Why did God create people like him who could not handle life?’ (13).

The climax of Ahmad’s interest in Nawal comes on the Night of Power, towards the end of Ramadan. The Night of Power, in Islamic belief, is the night when the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed to the prophet Muhammad. On this night the blessings and mercy of Allah are thought to be abundant.

In a banal contrast, it is on the Night of Power that the air-raid sirens sound again. Ahmad’s family and Nawal’s both take refuge in the neighbourhood shelter. When the all-clear sounds and the families leave, Nawal makes eye-contact: ‘…when she reached [the shelter door], she turned and gave him a very meaningful look.’ (14). Ahmad’s blessings are abundant indeed.

The day after Ahmad experiences a happiness that is quite untypical of the personality that Mahfouz has described for him, and which does not occur again in the book. ‘That morning his emotions were pure, completely unclogged by feelings of hatred and rancour.’ (15).

Almost immediately Ahmad’s hopes are dashed. The timing of Ahmad’s disappointment, just after his hopes reach their height, and the completeness of Ahmad’s frustration, are pure melodrama.

Rushdi spots the girl in exactly the same way as his brother did. He sees her by accident from the window of his room. ‘…he could see the face of a young girl, an exceptionally beautiful face….’ (17).

This is another moment of irony. We know who the girl is. Rushdi doesn’t.

In the same situation, the brothers react differently. ‘Their eyes met. Her look was one of disapproval, but his was that of a hunter who’d just spotted his prey.’ (17).

Nawal’s disapproving look gives a clear hint that she knows she has already encouraged Ahmad, and that she knows what that means in a conservative culture. Rushdi’s look reveals he is a playboy. ‘Where love was concerned, he had limitless self-confidence, based on one success after another.’ (17).

We are explicitly reminded that Rushdi does not know of Ahmad’s prior interest, and it is strongly suggested that if he did know he would behave differently: ‘…he had no way of knowing the kind of blow he was about to aim at the happiness of his elder brother whom he both loved and revered.’ (17).

Somehow it is important to the novel that the brothers are not conscious rivals. In real life, we might feel it was highly likely that Rushdi would find out something. That is not however the kind of tension that Mahfouz wants.

Rushdi is very different from Ahmad. In some ways he is like his mother. ‘She was a beautiful woman…. she was known everywhere for her sense of humour…. She had lots of friends.’ (3). Rushdi is like his brother in some ways. ‘They were of roughly the same height and had the same thin build.’ (16). Rushdi is however more attractive: ‘…his eyes had a glow to them that suggested a sharp mind, a propensity for fun, and a willingness to take risks.’ (16).

Rushdi has been deprived of parental guidance: ‘…neither of those two dear people [his mother and his elder brother] had the necessary resolution to provide him with guidance and restraint.’ (15).

At university he falls in with bad company. ‘He found himself drawn toward a certain group of young men who indulged in heavy drinking, betting on card games, and in general living a dissolute life.’ (15). Rushdi becomes a habitué of the Ghamra casino.

Rushdi’s response, from the start, is in complete contrast to Ahmad’s. This is surely deliberate. Mahfouz is making the two brothers into opposites. Rushdi acts, and he does so immediately. Rushdi waits outside the apartment building and follows Nawal on her way to school.  He does so quite blatantly. ‘Now he was sure that she realised he was deliberately following her.’ (20).

Rushdi is taking advantage of a degree of freedom Nawal has because she attends school. Mahfouz’s first readers would be aware that allowing a girl of Nawal’s age to leave home on her own was, in conservative social circles, a fairly recent social development.

Nawal however is traditional. Despite her youth she is open to approaches from men. ‘For her, life was entirely focused on a single goal: heart, home and marriage.’ (21).

As an adolescent, Nawal’s movements are somewhat restricted. ‘Now she could no longer play with the younger girls in the street, the roof had become her favourite spot.’ (21). Rushdi takes advantage of this also. He stalks her there. ‘She was amazed to find him standing there, his tall frame filling up the doorway.’ (21).

Ahmad meanwhile is oblivious of Rushdi’s interest in Nawal. His own relationship with Nawal seems to be progressing. ‘He… plucked up the courage to give her a smile….’ (19).

Ahmad still does not know what to do. The contrast with Rushdi’s self-confidence could not be greater. ‘What comes next after a smile?’ (19).

Ahmad discovers what is going on by accident. It is by accident that both he and Rushdi realise they have a pretty girl as their neighbour. Ahmad realises that Ahmad is interested in Nawal because he spots her from the window. Both he and Rushdi first become interested in Nawal when they see her from the window. ‘From the middle of [Rushdi’s] room [Ahmad] managed to spot Nawal’s head – no-one else’s – which proceeded to withdraw at lightning speed! …Ahmad was totally shocked by what he had seen….’ (23).

Khan al-Khalili is realistic in style and technique. The unobtrusive formalism, however, makes the structure strong.

The effect on Ahmad is devastating. He responds by completely changing his opinion of Nawal: ‘…the girl had been deliberately deceitful, and that meant an end to all his futile hopes.’ (24.) This is the process that Freud has taught us to think of as ‘splitting’.

More interestingly, perhaps – because it is more unusual – Ahmad refuses to compete: ‘…it was out of the question for him to lower himself so far as to engage in any rivalry with another human being…. It was also out of the question to let his younger brother know about his secret love.’ (24). This is surely an expression of his low self-esteem, and an expectation of failure that has been conditioned by the past.

Ahmad, nevertheless, is angry. ‘It was his younger brother who had forced him – twenty years ago now – to sacrifice his own future in order to devote himself to his brother’s education. Now here was Rushdi plucking the fruits of the happiness that should have been his and trampling all over his hopes….’ (26).

Ahmad responds by self-criticism. ‘How could he possibly be so abjectly incapable of finding any kind of happiness in life?’ (26).

Ahmad is also taken over by nihilism. ‘A strange and terrifying idea occurred to him: how would it be if the world could be devoid of human beings.’ (27). This nihilism, though it shocks him, links him with Ma’mun Radwan in Cairo Modern and with Said Maran in The Thief and the Dogs (1961).

Rushdi is as oblivious of Ahmad’s devastation as Ahmad was of Rushdi’s interest in Nawal. This reinforces the parallelism.

Rushdi continues his pursuit. ‘When [Rushdi] reached the New Road, he spotted the girl just in front of him….’ (27).

Rushdi is remarkably confident. ‘From the outset he had had no doubts concerning his eventual triumph, nor for that matter had she.’ (27).

Rushdi not only engages her in conversation. He talks to Nawal about love.  ‘”Don’t you believe in love at first sight? …God willing, we will never be parted.”’ (27).

There now occurs a highly significant symbolic incident. The route that Nawal takes to walk to school leads her and Rushdi past the Cairo Necropolis: ‘…the City of the Dead was looming ahead to their left, shrouded in its eternal gloom and all-pervasive silence.’ (27).

The City of the Dead is a large area of tombs and mausoleums near the Mokattam Hills, which are a significant location in Children of the Alley. What Mahfouz does not mention is that many people live among the tombs. It is not relevant here.

‘”That’s our family tomb,” [Rushdi] said… “Then let’s recite the Fatiha,’ [Nawal] said.’ (27). The Fatiha, known as the Opener, is the first sura of the Qu’ran. It has an important role in Islamic prayer.

Nawal’s suggestion that they should pray underlines her traditional upbringing. The family tomb however has a significance that will be clear to many readers. It is not made explicit until much later.

Rushdi, on account of his health, has given up his walks with Nawal.  Nawal is keen that the walks should resume. ‘… [Nawal] encouraged him to resume their walk together since she was keen for them to be alone together.’ (37).

Rushdi is bitter. ‘Would fate soon decree that this girl of his would be walking past the tomb and reciting the Fatiha over his departed spirit?’ (37).

By the time that Rushdi and Nawal first walk past the family tomb, the alert reader will already have noticed that Rushdi is ill. The alert reader may also have realised, because of the emphasis on weight loss and pallor, that Rushdi’s illness is tuberculosis.

Rushdi’s dissolute way of life has affected his health. ‘He grew thinner and downright skinny…’ (15). This is the first hint of tuberculosis. Rushdi’s mother also notices his weight.  ‘…Rushdi had not gained a single pound while he was away.’ (17). This serves to further underline the point for the reader.

When he walks past the tomb with Nawal the first time, Rushdi is not aware that he is ill. This is another instance of the irony that, with the formalism, is so important to the structure of the novel.

The young people are fairly clearly in love. ‘He took her hand and held it tenderly. “Good-bye until tomorrow morning,” he said…. If only dreams could come true, [Nawal] told herself.’ (27).

Rushdi experiences elation, just as Ahmad did when he thought Nawal was interested in him. Ahmad attains peace. Rushdi, in keeping with his lifestyle, feels intoxicated. ‘That Saturday afternoon Rushdi seemed drunk with happiness….’ (28).

Rushdi makes friends with Nawal’s father. This is a conservative society. If he wants to woo the daughter, Rushdi has to woo the family. ‘Kamal invited Rushdi to the Zahra Café….’ (29). Rushdi is on the same footing as Ahmad.

Rushdi soon does better than Ahmad. He reaches position of intimacy with Nawal’s family that Ahmad had never dreamed of. ‘Soon afterwards Kamal Khalil invited him [Rushdi] to visit his home.’ (29).

Rushdi then proceeds to establish a relationship of trust which allows him a degree of licensed intimacy with Nawal. ‘[Rushdi] now managed to portray himself as a serious thinker and put on a display of solid conservatism. As a result he found himself taking over Professor Ahmed Rushdi’s position as tutor to Nawal and Muhammad.’ (29).

The rapid progress of Rushdi’s suit indicates an element of romance in this particular sub-plot. As we already know, however, that this is a melodrama, we can assume with confidence that Rushdi’s world is about to come tumbling down.

And it does. Rushdi falls sick. ‘Rushdi Akif got influenza…. His health collapsed incredibly quickly, and he lost a lot of weight….’ (30.)

The reaction of the family to Rushdi’s illness that Mahfouz describes is realistic. It is proportionate and empathetic. ‘[Ahmad] found Rushdi in bed moaning and his mother beside him rubbing his back…. They all stayed by his bed until dawn.’ (30.)

This is the climax of the novel. The emphasis is no longer on Ahmad’s inhibited and indecisive interest in Nawal, or Rushdi’s active pursuit of her. The emphasis is on the steady deterioration in Rushdi’s health, and the inevitable end.

Rushdi’s illness is now obvious to his family. ‘[Rushdi] was still very skinny, and his complexion was turning paler and paler….’ (31).

Initially this does not prompt Rushdi to look after himself any better. He cannot restrain his impulses. ‘…Rushdi continued his reckless ways….’ (33).

This affects Rushdi obviously. ‘He began to cough violently and lost his appetite.’ (33).

Rushdi eventually suspends his dissipated habits. ‘He stopped going to the Ghamra Casino….’ (33).

It is however too late. Rushdi’s symptoms become worse. At Eid al-Adha Rushdi coughs blood. Eid al-Adha is the Feast of Sacrifice. It commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son. It is one of the two most important festivals of Islam. The other is Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan.

It seems extraordinary that Mahfouz would use something as holy as Eid al-Adha to create an irony, but that is clearly what he does. It is on the Feast of Sacrifice that we learn beyond a doubt that Rushdi’s family are going to lose a son.

Mahfouz is taking a chance. Secular literature, at that date in Egypt, was not by any means immune from the attentions of the clergy.

Rushdi now does something the reader will assume he should have done several chapters earlier, or indeed before he even appeared in the novel. ‘”Finally I went to see the doctor…. He told me I had incipient tuberculosis in my left lung.”’ (33). If Rushdi had consulted the doctor in time, there would have been no melodrama and no novel.

Rushdi is fatalistic. ‘”People say… that there’s no cure for tuberculosis.”’ (34). The doctor pooh-poohs this. ‘The doctor gave him a disapproving look. “Don’t let the word ‘tuberculosis’ alarm you,” he said.’ (35).

The reader may well feel that Rushdi is dramatising his situation. Rushdi’s self-pity will however also confirm that reader’s intuition that Rushdi is going to die.

Rushdi is still not willing to take responsibility. Rather than being afraid of death, he fears he will lose his job and his girl. (34).

Ahmad does not understand. ‘”But people with this disease normally go to the sanatorium,” Ahmad said. Once again Rushdi lied to his brother. “The doctor doesn’t think it’s necessary.”’ (35.)

Rushdi becomes very obviously ill. ‘Rushdi’s health went from bad to worse, and he became even thinner and paler…. “Are you trying to commit suicide?” Ahmad would rail at him.’ (38).

This is the beginning of a process that Rushdi dreads: ‘…he shared with his mother his fears that the true nature of his illness might become public knowledge….’ (39.)

This is partly I think a fear of the stigma surrounding a contagious and potentially fatal disease. It is also Rushdi’s inability or unwillingness to take responsibility.

First his colleagues notice. ‘His fellow workers in the bank noticed how badly he was coughing and became suspicious.’ (38).

Rushdi becomes so ill that he can no longer hide it. ‘Rushdi retired to his bed.’ (38).

The doctor puts his foot down. ‘”The sanatorium now!”’ (38).

Word that Rushdi is ill gets out. The brothers are still able to conceal the true nature of Rushdi’s illness. ‘Kamal Khalil Effendi came to visit and assured Rushdi that fluid in the lungs was nothing to worry about. Sitt Tawhida and her daughter, Nawal, also called in…. the mother told [Rushdi] that his insistence on staying so thin was what had made him so ill….’ (39).

Both families visit. ‘The family had to wait impatiently until Friday, which was visiting day at the sanatorium. Kamal Khalil decided that he and his family would go with them.’ (40.) The reader will now be pretty sure that Kamal Khalil has been thinking of Rushdi as a suitable husband for his daughter.

They find, to their surprise, that Rushdi’s is more ill, not less. ‘… [Rushdi’s] condition had actually worsened….’ (40).

Ahmad receives a letter. ‘“That’s strange…. It’s Rushdi’s handwriting.”’ (41). Rushdi knows he is dying. He wants to die at home.

It is now Ahmad’s turn to see the family tomb as a symbol of Rushdi’s imminent death. ‘He could envisage the family tomb far away….’ (41).

This is another irony. The reader knows, though Ahmad does not, that Rushdi has already seen the tomb in this symbolic way.

It is now clear to all the family that Rushdi is really ill. ‘When Rushdi finally appeared, everyone was completely shocked, and no one made any effort to hide their feelings.’ (42).

The inevitable consequence is what Rushdi most fears. ‘Now came the really dreadful days…. with April came a change. Nawal no longer came to visit him.’ (43).

Rushdi feels betrayed. ‘”The worst thing in life,” Rushdi went on… “…is for a friend to shun you for no good reason….”’

Ahmad has of course felt betrayed in a very similar way. ‘With that he turned toward the window – Nawal’s window – that was now firmly locked. “Closed forever,” he said angrily, “closed forever!”’ (24).

Kamal Khalil fairly clearly feels he cannot approach Rushdi’s family directly. This makes it clear that tuberculosis is a taboo subject. Kamal Khalil is however, unlike either of the brothers, a resourceful and responsible adult. ‘Kamal Khalil… went to visit a friend of his in Bank Misr and inquired about Rushdi’s illness.’ (44.) Mahfouz treats this demarche quite sympathetically.

Kamal Khalil takes steps to protect his daughter: ‘”… from today you cannot visit our dear sick neighbour any more.”’ (44.)

Nawal reacts, as we would expect her to, like a teenager in love. ‘”How can you be so unkind?”’ (44.)

Mahfouz makes clear that Nawal is not only affectionate. She is innocent. ‘The only thing she knew about death was the word itself.’ (44.)

Rushdi has lost the girl. Now he loses his job as well. The company doctor makes a home visit. ‘”…you’ll have to be fired by the bank as of May 31.”’ This is May 1942.  (45.)

Mahfouz allows Rushdi a touch of dignity. ‘Rushdi asked if he could borrow the Qur’an.’ (46.) Someone as irreligious as Rushdi is only going to borrow the Qur’an when know he is dying.

However Rushdi then spoils the impression of dignity and acceptance that borrowing the Qur’an gives. When Sitt Tawhida and Nawal visit, Rushdi is angry. He tells them he has tuberculosis. (46.)

Acknowledging tuberculosis in this way, for Rushdi, is very nearly the end. He decides to go back to the sanatorium. ‘[Ahmad] was delighted that his brother had decided to go back to the sanatorium in Helwan.’ (47.)

Rushdi does not think he will last long. ‘”I’m sharing a truth before parting. You may not see me any more after today.”’ (47.)

He lasts even less long than he thinks. That same evening: ‘Their mother emerged, holding her hands above her head as though begging for help. Then she lowered them and started slapping her cheeks violently, crazily….’ (47.)

Once again Ahmad has to take the paternal role. He has to buy the shroud and register the death. The deliberately ugly image of a putrefying dead dog in the street reminds him of the physical realities of death. ‘Good heavens, that foul smell was still there, the terrifying stench of death! …On the sidewalk he could see a dead dog….’ (48.)

The use of the sanatorium in Khan al-Khalili is peculiar. If we understand it correctly, it will tell us something about the essential nature of this novel.

The sanatorium can be used in fiction in a number of ways. It can be the locus of suffering, or the site of death or cure. It can be the stage for altruism and sacrifice, or for solidarity between the afflicted. With a more decadent writer like Thomas Mann, it can become a symbol of the pathology of art and indeed of civilisation.

With Mahfouz, it is none of these things.

Rushdi goes to the sanatorium when the doctor loses patience and gives him a direct instruction. He returns almost immediately. The first visit to the sanatorium has no practical effect. It simply communicates to the reader and, importantly, to the other characters, that Rushdi is seriously ill.

When Rushdi decides to return to the sanatorium, he is about to die. He does not even get there. His decision has now practical effect whatsoever. What Rushdi’s decision communicates to the reader and to the other characters is that Rushdi is at the point of death.

What is being done here? What is said?

There is a social message, a message about the stigma and the fear surrounding tuberculosis at that date in Egypt, and the realistic basis for that fear. There was a third brother who died, and tuberculosis is still not well understood.

Something is communicated by making Rushdi’s doctor – somewhat implausibly perhaps – speak on the radio. ‘The doctor talked about the way the microbe responsible for the illness had been discovered….’  (45). The doctor believes the government should establish ‘…a kind of isolation facility.’ (45). Mahfouz is making the point that the scientific understanding of tuberculosis is at a very early stage, and that effective treatment is almost non-existent.

Something about the kind of novel we are reading is expressed, if not perhaps communicated, by the inevitability of Rushdi’s death.

The inevitability of death has a distinguished pedigree in literature. It is one of the signs – to us, if not in quite the same way to the Greeks – of tragedy.

Tragedy however requires heroes. Rushdi is not a hero. He is ordinary to the point of banality. When the inevitability of death is banal, it is not tragedy. It is melodrama.

The way the novel ends is also interesting.

The family moves. ‘At the end of August Ahmad Akif found an empty apartment in the al-Zaytun neighbourhood.’ It is Ahmad who takes responsibility and acts on his mother’s wishes.

Unexpectedly and untypically things start looking good for Ahmad. There is a possibility, though it is quite general, that his position at work will improve. ‘People started talking about fair treatment for workers who had been overlooked for a long time.’ (51).

In the new apartment there appears to be a prospect of marriage with someone more suitable than a teenage schoolgirl. ‘… [the owner’s sister] was a cultured and attractive widow of fifty-three.’ (51).

Ahmad, it would appear, has grounds for optimism. ‘Tomorrow he would be living in a new home, in a different quarter, turning his back on the past…. a past with all its hopes and dashed aspirations.’ (51).

This is quite ambiguous. Ahmad has no reason to assume that a discussion of fairness will lead to action, or that action, if it takes place, will affect him. However he is hopeful. Ahmad also has no reason to assume that the ‘cultivated and attractive widow’ will be interested in him. The reader, knowing Ahmad’s history of romantic disappointment, may well assume it will probably come to nothing. Yet Ahmad is clearly encouraged.

Finally, of course, there is no reason to suppose that a new home in a different quarter will enable Ahmad to leave the past behind. The new home in Khan al-Khalili brought the death of Ahmad’s surviving brother, and another in a series of romantic disappointments.

Ambiguity, in Khan al-Khalili, is unusual. There is irony, but no ambiguity. What is going on?

The melodramatic disaster – and a disaster is required in all melodramas – is the death of Rushdi. Rushdi comes home just as Ahmad’s romantic hopes are at their height. Rushdi, in a sense, takes over the courtship. Rushdi’s romantic disappointment is bound up with his death from tuberculosis.

The outcome for Ahmad is some encouragement and some hope. There are other possible outcomes. One is acceptance of his position in life, and the maturity that comes with it. The other would be, in effect, the opposite; a continuing denial of reality.

In either case – and I think this is the point – the emphasis would shift back from Rushdi to Ahmad. Mahfouz, clearly, does not want that.

Ahmad, initially, appears to be the protagonist. When Rushdi arrives, he in effect takes over the courtship of Nawal from Ahmad. Rushdi does not, however, take over the narration.

Ahmad’s self-involvement makes him a better narrator than Rushdi’s unselfconscious hedonism would do. The point of view remains Ahmad’s. The disaster, however, is Rushdi’s death and Rushdi’s loss of love. Ahmad is left curiously free.

I mentioned earlier that Kamil Ru’ba in The Mirage, Kamal al-Jawad in The Cairo Trilogy, and Saber Omran in The Search are all sexually inhibited, like Ahmad Akif. That is however not the whole story. They are inhibited or even impotent with refined, attractive women. They are not always inhibited or impotent.

Kamil Ru’ba cannot make love with his wife. He has no difficulty with a vulgar and forward woman who flirts with him. Kamal al-Jawad gives himself up, possibly quite mistakenly, to a lifetime of unrequited longing. He visits the same prostitute every weekend, and has to get mildly drunk before he has sex with her. In the case of Saber Omran, the conflict is so violent it leads to homicide. Omran ends the novel in the death cell, waiting to be hung.

This is splitting; the simultaneous idealisation and devaluation of – in this case – women. In Khan al-Khalili, it is splitting – not poverty, and not intergenerational conflict – that is the focus of the novel.

The reason that Rushdi arrives late in the novel, and the reason Ahmad is left free at the end, is that Rushdi and Ahmad are the same person. There is only room for one narrator, Ahmad. There is only room for one protagonist. When Rushdi takes over, Ahmad must retreat. And only one person can experience a disastrous denouement. There is not room for two.

Mahfouz has described splitting, in Khan al-Khalili by splitting, though not completely, his central character. Ahmad and Rushdi remain conjoined.

In The Mirage Mahfouz employs a more sophisticated approach. In The Cairo Trilogy, ambiguity is at the centre of the novel.

There are a number of qualities that make Khan al-Khalili a melodrama. The scenes in Café Zahra do not, admittedly, tend to advance the action; other than that, Khan al-Khalili has the tight plotting that is typical of genre fiction. Khan al-Khalili also turns on the death of Rushdi. Without Rushdi’s death, the novel is not very interesting. It also shows, in Ahmad’s case as well as Rushdi’s, the typically melodramatic trait of disaster striking at the moment of greatest happiness.

In addition, the characters in Khan al-Khalili are one-dimensional. Ahmad is a failure, and only a failure. Rushdi is a playboy and nothing more. This superficiality does not define melodrama. It occurs in other kinds of writing. It is, however, perfectly consistent with melodrama.

The social interest of Khan al-Khalili, I think, is the portrayal of courtship in a socially conservative Egyptian community. Mahfouz identifies social conservatism with the lower middle-class. The conversations in Café Zahra serve to underline this. There is also a portrayal of the stigma surrounding contagious disease. This serves, I think, to add depth to the portrayal of a conservative social group.

I do not accept the consensus view that Khan al-Khalili is realism. I would say, like Cairo Modern, that it is better described as social melodrama.

Photo by Bakar_88 on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

The precariousness of twenty-first century writing

I have just found two online publications that recommend books that I think I might like. This feels like a breakthrough.

One is a blog. The other calls itself a magazine. They are both based in the UK. Both do weekly posts.

I am not too sure what the difference is between a blog and an online magazine is. In practice the online magazines tend to have better layout, clearer navigation and more disciplined publication schedules. Even the best of the blogs can have a more chaotic feel, which can be quite appealing.

The blog I have found is called Bookmunch. The magazine is Shiny New Books. In both cases the work they have decided to do is recommending books. Bookmunch does occasional articles. No self-publicising, and no tips on creative writing. That to me is already a relief. Bookmunch feels quite funky. Shiny New Books is respectable. Nobody on either publication gets paid. Shiny New Books say emphatically they don’t review self-published books. Bookmunch don’t say anything in particular.

The books I have found include War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hertmans, American War, by Omar el-Akkad, Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. I have put them all on Amazon lists.

Except for Sing, Unburied, Sing they are all translated. Ward is an American writer. Sing, Unburied, Sing was the winner of last year’s National Book Award. As such it may well have had exposure in the mainstream media in this country. I hadn’t heard of it. American War had turned up in my recommendations on Amazon, presumably because I have browsed dystopian fiction. I hadn’t heard of any of the others. All of them have something to do with trauma, which is an interest of mine.

I don’t like contemporary English fiction. I don’t think it’s very good. This selection tends to confirm my view. I am not very impressed by contemporary European or American fiction, either. It’s striking that when I find European and American novels I want to read, I find them on publications that are outside the mainstream.

It is fairly easy to find stuff that was written in the second half of the twentieth century. I am a huge fan of Naguib Mahfouz, and a fan of Lao She and Ma Jian. Notice that this is all translated. It is hard to find good contemporary stuff.

One reason it is hard to find good contemporary fiction is that regular publishing, in this country and probably the United States, isn’t working very well. I don’t think they are capable of finding and publishing genuinely original work. The other reason it is hard is the sheer volume of self-publishing. Most blogs won’t touch self-published fiction. The ones that will review self-published either deal exclusively with genre or charge a fee for reviews. No-one is sifting the bulk that is out there.

I am convinced that if anyone is writing good stuff in this country now – and that’s if, and only if – it is either being self-published, or not published at all. I can’t find it. And as a writer – a writer who is quite confident he is writing good stuff – I can’t find readers.

Until I found Bookmunch and Shiny New Books I was convinced there were a lot of book blogs out there. There are. Most of them are vulgar. They do genre. They are decorated with pictures of flowers and sunsets. Some are pretentious. They are literary and intellectual. Many are not being updated any more. In some cases this is because the owners have gone on to social media. Blogs aren’t fashionable any more. They leave a forwarding address, and mumble about the archive. In other cases the owners have just disappeared. It was obviously too much work.

There are probably 200,000 books being published in the UK by regular publishers every year. Not all of them are novels. Many are. There are probably a couple of hundred thousand self-published books.

I have found two publications to help me sift through them. I don’t know how long their owners will be able to keep up the unpaid work. I don’t know where I will go when they close.

What I really need is to find other writers who are doing similar stuff and have similar values. I need to feel I am not alone. With the help of Bookmunch and Shiny New Books I may be able to find regularly-published writers I feel an affinity with. That will be something.

I don’t know how I’m going to find the self-published writers I like. And I don’t know how I will find readers.

I have sent Bookmunch a copy of The City that Walked Away. I don’t know what they will do.

I have emailed Shiny New Books. I have suggested they need a procedure for making exceptions.

I don’t expect a reply.

Photo credit: Whiskey Monday on / CC BY-NC-SA

Reading and marginalisation

I am marginalised as a reader of fiction.

I don’t read genre. I don’t read literary fiction. I think literature is a problematic concept.

I don’t like the English novel. I don’t like European and American novels of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

I like Naguib Mahfouz. I like Lao She and Ma Jian. I like Dostoyevsky. I would probably like some of the other nineteenth-century Russians if I got around to reading and re-reading them.

I am not a book lover.

I would like to make contact with people who read the same things as me.

Photo by jvoves on / CC BY

Melodrama and reality

Cairo Modern, Naguib Mahfouz, 1945

Cairo Modern  was the fourth novel that Naguib Mahfouz published. It was the first of his novels to have a contemporary theme.

The first three novels that Mahfouz wrote had been set in the Pharaonic past. They were not romances as such. They were however romantic in their treatment of their historical themes.

Mahfouz had apparently read Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe at school. He wanted to write a sequence of forty novels – modelled on Walter Scott’s Waverly novels – describing the history of Egypt. Although he abandoned that particular project, he never lost interest completely in the Pharaonic past. I would guess, though I cannot be certain, that Mahfouz also never abandoned the goal of creating a complete description in fiction of Egyptian life.

Cairo Modern is the first of five novels with contemporary themes published between 1945 and 1950. They were followed between 1956 and 1957 by the Cairo Trilogy, as it is known in English.

The Cairo Trilogy is Mahfouz’s acknowledged masterwork. With the Trilogy, Mahfouz is said to have ‘established’ the novel in Arabic. He continued publishing fiction until 1988. He was never to write anything again on quite the same scale as the Trilogy.

The five early contemporary novels are sometimes described as realistic. I do not think that is quite accurate. I would be inclined to say they are a form of ‘social melodrama’.  While they are undeniably competent, and their themes are interesting, they are genre novels. They sacrifice the depiction of reality to the demands of plot. As fiction, these early novels do not reach the same aesthetic level as the realistic novels Mahfouz was to write between 1961 and 1967, after the brilliantly allegorical banned novel Children of the Alley (which was serialised in 1959).

I would describe Cairo Modern as social, like the other novels written at the same period, because of its themes. The themes that Cairo Modern deals with are corruption and poverty. Corruption and poverty were important social issues at the time Mahfouz wrote. Both corruption and poverty, sadly, remain important issues in Egypt today.

Egyptian poverty is above all rural. It is the fellahin scraping a living on the banks of the Nile. The poverty that Mahfouz describes in Cairo Modern, however, is urban. While Mahfouz himself grew up in a modestly prosperous petty-bourgeois environment, the family home was originally in the traditional Cairene quarter of Gamaliya. At that date, or so I understand, the streets and alleys of Old Cairo were socially very mixed. Mahfouz as a boy would have had an opportunity to observe poverty at close hand.

On joining the civil service after graduation Mahfouz worked briefly in what would now be called a micro-credit scheme. This, one imagines, would have given him the opportunity to gain a more mature understanding of poverty.

Mahfouz never lost his fascination with the area where he grew up. He returned to it repeatedly in fiction.

The corruption that Mahfouz describes in Cairo Modern was in the civil service. Mahfouz knew the civil service well. He was a career civil servant who never attempted to live on the income, such as it was, from writing. After graduation, Mahfouz worked for a while in the Ministry of Religious Endowments. ‘Religious endowments’, or waqf, are an important part of Muslim culture. Mahfouz later transferred to the Ministry of Culture, and was to rise to a senior position. For much of his career he had posts dealing with the film industry.

The civil service occurs frequently in Mahfouz’s novels. Mahfouz describes idleness, incompetence, bribery and the corruption surrounding entry to the civil service and promotion through the grades. Most of the time, Mahfouz got away with it. He enjoyed a relative immunity, and a degree of freedom to comment. This may have been due in part at least to the standing he gained in Egyptian cultural life, and to the national pride that international recognition of his work was to engender.

Corruption and poverty in Cairo Modern have a precise relationship. Cairo Modern is in fact among other things a roman à thèse. The proposition it advances is that an educated young man in extreme poverty will be forced to become corrupt in order to survive.

Cairo Modern does not belong, as far as I can tell, to a particular genre. It is however in some ways very much a genre novel. It is tightly plotted. The plot is often driven by coincidence. The action is fast-paced. It does not allow for relationships or reflection of much depth.

Cairo Modern is also a melodrama. It is a story of crime and illicit sex. The characters are larger than life. The main actors are villains, and the outcomes are disastrous. It meets the definition.

If there is a model for Cairo Modern, it is probably a loose one. Someone with knowledge of the popular Egyptian fiction of the time might be able to suggest what it was.

Cairo Modern describes a scandal in the civil service. The protagonist, towards the end of the novel at any rate, is shown to be aware of this. ‘For his life story to be made public would constitute a scandal.’ [37.]

When it was published there had apparently been a recent scandal concerning the civil service. Mahfouz was interviewed by the mufti of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. None of the available English-language sources give any detail of what was said. There do not, however, appear to have been consequences.

Cairo Modern opens with a description of four young men commenting on a group of women on the university grounds. ‘The presence of women at the university was still a novelty….’ These young men are ‘final year students who were almost twenty-four, and their faces shone with pride in their maturity and learning.’ [Chapter 1.] From this opening we learn that the novel will deal, among other things, with the changing relations between men and women in the educated classes of Egyptian society.

The young men are Ma’mun Radwan, Ali Taha, Mahgub Abd al-Da’im and Ahmad Badir.  Ma’mun Radwan is handsome, like the hero of melodrama or genre fiction. He is idealised in the same way. ‘…his good looks and nobility were evident. Had he wished to be a lothario like Umar ibn Abi Rabia, he could have succeeded, but he possessed unique blend of chastity, rectitude and purity.’ [3.] Unlike a hero, however, Ma’mun Radwan has very little to do with the action.

Ma’mun Radwan is not just religious but an Islamist. ‘”There is only one cause: the cause of Islam in general and of the Arabs in particular.”’ [3.] Ali Taha, by contrast, is a secularist. ‘He adopted a materialist explanation of life….’ He has taken his ethics from the writings of Auguste Comte. ‘He believed in human society and human science and held the conviction that the atheist – like the monotheist – has principles and ideals if he so chooses….’ [4.]

Ali Taha is also heroically good-looking. ‘He was a handsome young man with green eyes and blond hair that was almost golden and that suggested a distinguished pedigree.’ He looks, in other words, like a Circassian, an ethnic group – originally of Christians from the Caucasus – that had considerable prestige under the Ottoman Empire.

Ali Taha’s function in the plot is to have a romantically beautiful girlfriend who is also very poor. Ihsan Shihata ‘… was a girl of eighteen and her countenance was illuminated by ivory skin. Her black eyes’ clarity and her lashes had a special magic.’ [4.] Mahgub Abd al-Da’im is intrigued as to how Ali Taha met Ihsan. ‘“How did you meet her? On the street?” “Of course not! From the window!”’ [9.] Girls who stand at their windows are considered bold. Girls who meet boys on the street are even bolder.

Poverty, in the Cairo that Naguib Mahfouz describes, is not romantic. When his father become ill al-Da’im returns to Qanatir, where he grew up, and visits the house where he was born. ‘… The look of the place suggested not merely simplicity but squalor.’ [7.]

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im is the protagonist. The premise of the story is that poverty is corrosive, and can erode all values. Mahgub Abd al-Da’im is described as amoral [31] and a nihilist [7.] His friends call him an anarchist: ‘”You, more than anyone, deserve the title anarchist.”’ [10.]

‘Anarchist’ is not quite correct. Mahgub Abd al-Da’im entirely lacks a class analysis. He does however share the rejection of some ‘individual anarchists’, as they are known, of the idea of any moral restraint or obligation. Al-Da’im is also, though Mahgub does not use the term or an equivalent, anti-social. ‘His rejection of society and its values was dazzlingly complete.’ [40.]

Mahfouz returns to the anti-social personality as a subject in other novels. Said Mahran in The Thief and the Dogs (1961), for example, is a powerful treatment of the theme. Mahran is a criminal, a burglar who goes armed and eventually a killer. There is also a political dimension. It is a more complex novel.

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im is not heroically handsome. He is also poor. ‘Mahgub Abd al-Da’im … did not change his clothes, because unlike his two friends he did not own a special outfit for Thursday night.’ He is aware of Ali Taha’s fiancée. ‘He saw Ihsan Shihata … as breast, butt and legs.’ Unlike Ali Taha and Ma’mun Radwan he is neither a secularist nor an Islamist. ‘His philosophy called for liberation form everything: from values, ideals, belief systems and principles, from social culture as a whole…. His objective in life was pleasure and power…. without any regard for morality, religion, or virtue.’ [5.]

Mahfouz has created a religious young man and an ethical materialist as foils for the amoral Abd al-Da’im. The didactic intention is clear.

The fourth of the group is Ahmad Badir, who is a journalist as well as a student. When he graduates he becomes a full-time journalist. His function in the plot is to supply Abd al-Da’im occasionally with information that Abd al-Da’im could not otherwise plausibly obtain.

When Abd al-Da’im goes to a charity event in search of a patron, Ahmad Badir is there. Ahmad Badir explains who is who.  ‘“Aziz Darim… was forced to resign on a morals charge…. His business is his elegant apartment, which contains a gaming table and superbly endowed young women.”’ Abd al-Da’im appreciates his help. ‘… it was vexing to plunge into a new world without a guide.’ [21.]

Cairo Modern is rather precisely dated. There are references to the 1923 Egyptian constitution [3] and to ‘… pamphlets opposing the new constitution….’ [6.] The ‘new constitution’ must be the constitution of 1930-35.

Towards the end of the novel there is a remark about ‘The Nazi Party’s successful rise to power….’ [41.] This would be a reference to Hitler becoming Chancellor in 1933. The context makes clear this is a recent event. The action of the novel, spread over a few months, therefore takes place in 1932 and 1933.

There were at that date many issues in Egyptian politics. The over-riding issue was of course independence from the British. The British were in effect – though not in international law – the colonial power. Mahfouz reminds the reader that once independence was achieved the fault line in Egyptian politics would become the division between the secularist and Islamist groups represented by the two young friends. ‘”Do you suppose we’ll become sworn enemies in the future?”’ [46.] It remains a fundamental division in Egypt today.

A few months before he graduates, Al-Daim is plunged into extreme poverty. This is precipitated by his father’s illness. Al-Da’im’s father has a stroke. ‘He suddenly fell down and lost the ability to speak.’ [7.] The prognosis is clear. Abd al-Da’im’s father ‘“… won’t be able to return to work.”’ [8.]

Mahfouz describes Al-Daim’s new depths of poverty in some detail. Al-Daim now has to manage on one Egyptian pound a month, rather than three.

He finds a rooftop room. He pays forty piasters rent. That leaves him two piasters a day for food, kerosene and laundry. He eats stewed beans in pita-bread from a stall patronised by labourers. [11.]

He is desperate. ‘If only he knew how to pick pockets.’ [14.]

Like many Egyptians in similar circumstances, Al-Daim applies to a relative. In Al-Daim’s case it is Hamdis Bey, a relative of his mother’s who has done well. This is unsuccessful.

Al-Daim then applies to Salim al-Ikhshidi, someone he knows from Qanatir who is already established in the civil service. By one of the coincidences that drive the plot of Cairo Modern, Al-Daim bumped into Al-Ikhshidi at the station on his way to visit his sick father. ‘…he found himself face-to-face with a young man… who was casting a completely self-confident, vain and supercilious look at everyone around him.’ [6.] Al-Ikhshidi, even more than Al-Daim, is a caricature.

Al-Ikhshidi introduces Al-Daim to a newspaper editor. ‘Mahgub… met the editor of The Star and was commissioned to translate some pieces at the rate of fifty piasters a month.’ [18.] This is at least honest. Mahgub is using the English and French he has learned during the course of his studies.

Al-Ikhshidi is not honest. Before he graduated he had been distributing ‘… pamphlets opposing the new constitution….’ on campus. He then met the minister, dropped his protests and was appointed to the civil service. [6.] It is clearly implied that the civil service job is a quid quo pro for the cessation of political activity. That is Al-Ikhshidi’s form of corruption.

After graduation Al-Daim’s situation is if anything worse than before. His father ‘…was expecting his son’s support from that time forward.’ Al-Da’im ‘…was panic-stricken…. His sole concern was fending off death by starvation and that meant finding a job that paid a living wage.’ [18.]

A friendly librarian then explains to Al-Da’im facts about degrees and employment that most of Mahfouz’s readers would probably already know. ‘”Listen, son. Forget your qualifications. Don’t waste money on applying for a job. The question boils down to one thing: Do you have someone who will intercede for you?”’ [18.]

Presumably someone in Al-Da’im’s position would have known this before embarking on a prolonged course of education. To reveal this information now, however, has a more dramatic impact.

There now follows quite an odd episode. It violates the rule of genre that all incidents should advance the plot. Al-Da’im applies again to Al-Ikhshidi. ‘Al-Ikhshidi… despised the young man and scorned his poverty and need.’ Al-Ikhshidi explains to Al-Da’im the costs of finding someone to intercede. ‘[Abd al-Aziz Bey Radwan’s] cut from his nominees is a guarantee of half of the salary for a period of two years.’ [19.]

There is also Mrs Ikram Nayrus, a philanthropist with a charity. She ‘… doesn’t ask for money but is fond of fame and praise.’ Al-Ikhshidi suggests Al-Da’im should write something in the newspaper. ‘”Attend the [benefit next Sunday] and I’ll introduce you to her…. You’ll have to purchase a ticket for fifty piasters….”’ [19.]

The benefit is a picture of aristocratic decadence and un-Islamic practices. There is social dancing. There is ‘…a troupe of upper-class maidens in ravishing pharaonic costumes’. Mahfouz does not need to explain to his readers that ‘pharaonic costumes’ violate Islamic canons of modesty.

The guests speak French – ‘… those fallen Muslims!’ Mrs Ikram Nayrus cannot even speak Arabic properly. ‘She delivered her speech in Arabic, but there was scarcely a sentence that lacked a grammatical error, or an ill-chosen word.’ [21.]

Ahmad Badir is able to identify a number of the guests for Al-Da’im. They exemplify different forms of corruption. We never meet them again. They have no function in the plot.

To help him with his article Abd al-Da’im makes a list of points in two columns, headed ‘The Truth’ and ‘What I Should Write’. Only one point is the same on both lists: ‘Her guests are just like her.’ He is then summoned by Al-Ikhshidi, who has a new proposal for him. ‘”Drop that article and forget about Ikram Nayruz.”’ [22.]

An entire chapter has been given over to the description of a charity event which as it turns out does not advance the plot in the slightest. It does however support the roman à thèse. That is its function. It portrays a blatant, pervasive corruption in the Egyptian elite.

It is with Al-Ikhshidi’s new proposal that the novel descends into sheer melodrama. Al-Ikhshidi’s superior, Qasim Bey Fahmi, is besotted with Ihsan Shihata, Ali Taha’s former girlfriend. ‘Qasim Bey Fahmi… pursued her affections without regard to rank, family or children.’ [36.]

The Bey is married. The proposal is that Mahgub Abd al-Da’im will marry Ihsan. Qasim Bey Fahmi will pay the rent and expenses of a flat. [29.] Abd al-Da’im and Ihsan will live together. The bey will visit Ihsan when he pleases. In exchange Abd al-Da’im will get something he wants desperately: a job in the civil service.

There is nothing unusual about rich, powerful men keeping pretty young mistresses. Cases could probably be found of complaisant young husbands being rewarded in their careers. What is implausible is the rich, powerful man looking for a husband for his pretty young mistress in order to install her in a discreet love-nest.

The ceremony of signing the marriage contract, the Islamic marriage, is an embarrassment. Ihsan is described, in what appears to be the standard formula, as ‘…an adult virgin of sound mind….’ Sound in mind she would seem to be. She is not however a virgin. It is quite clear that Qasim Bey Fahmi has already had his way with her. ‘This constituted fraud in an official document. His marriage was a fraud. His life was a fraud.’ That is objective. ‘The whole world was a fraud.’ That is a rationalisation. [26.]

Egypt at that date was socially very conservative. A woman in an irregular sexual relationship was likely to be called a prostitute, even if she was not in fact a sex industry worker. Since Ihsan became the bey’s mistress for financial reasons, many readers would see her in this way. She is, in the eyes of conventional people, a whore.

Abd al-Da’im gains a beautiful wife, whom he would never attract under normal circumstances. When we meet Al-Da’im his ‘girlfriend’ makes a living from collecting cigarette butts and reselling the tobacco. She charges three piasters for sex. She smells. They have sex behind a tree. [5.] Now that Abd al-Da’im has married Ihsan, he has something to lose.

Abd al-Da’im benefits from his wife’s unchaste behaviour. That makes him a pimp.

Despite the irregular nature of the relationship, Abd al-Da’im seeks sexual satisfaction. ‘Could a pimp and a whore find happiness together?’ This is not love. ‘All he wanted was… a lust that mirrored his own.’ [29.] To achieve this he uses alcohol. ‘Only a little [booze] sufficed for both of them.’ [31.] Al-Da’im has corrupted Ihsan. ‘… she felt the emptiness and ennui of a young woman whose heart has been deprived of love.’ [36.]

This is perhaps a somewhat sentimental version of womanhood. The point, I think, is that in a socially conservative period Mahfouz does not unequivocally condemn a young woman whose conduct violates the restrictive social norms. It is a hint of the compassion he will often show for women in his novels later.

Al-Da’im intends to support his parents. ‘He fully intended to send his parents two pounds every month, in fact to increase that to three if he could.’ [27.] He doesn’t do it.

The plot moves on very rapidly. There is a political crisis. Quite oddly, it is announced before it happens. Ahmad Badir, the journalist, tells Al-Da’im about it. ‘”The prime minister has lost the palace’s confidence….” “How about the English?”’ [37.] Ahmad Badir has however anticipated events. ‘… this information was premature, for there was no echo if it in the newspapers.’ [38.]

The anticipation gives Al-Da’im an opportunity to reflect on the extreme precariousness of his situation, without however the development of the plot being affected in any way. ‘“If the bey is pensioned off, I’ll definitely be transferred to some obscure position – unless I’m banished to the most rural district… if I’m not fired outright.”’ [38.]

Al-Da’im’s sense of insecurity also prompts him to decide he cannot help his parents. ‘…his parents… were the first victims of the political crisis.’ [37.] This is a decision that contributes significantly to the eventual denouement.

Qasim Bey Fahmi turns the crisis to his advantage. ‘[Al-Da’im’s] telephone rang, and it was his wife, Ihsan. ”Do you know who the new minister is? … Qasim Bey Fahmi.”’

Al-Da’im exhibits his characteristic audacity and greed. ‘”I must join his office staff.”’ Ihsan, like a loyal wife, supports him. ‘”I don’t think he would refuse me my request.”’ [38.]

Al-Daim excites the jealousy of Al-Ikhshidi, to whom he owes his position in the first place. Al-Ikhshidi makes Al-Da’im an offer. ‘”If you take my position and let me have your new job, that will realise all our hopes.” Al-Da’im, not without some trepidation, refuses. ‘This was a man – just like him – who had no morals and no principles and who knew everything…. This time he was assailed by fear.’ [39.]

The young people go on a boat-trip down the Nile to Qanatir to celebrate. Al-Da’im is nervous. ‘Wasn’t it possible that his desire for vengeance would be so great that he would spill the secret in some manner to his parents?’ [40.] On the trip there are a couple of odd incidents.

In one of these, a louche young man in the party attempts to seduce Ihsan. ‘She realised her had tricked her into his own cabin.’ Ihsan refuses him. She ‘…shoved him away violently, and shouted at him in an angry voice, “Please leave me alone. Leave me!” [43.]

The point here is I think that while Ihsan is the mistress of a rich, powerful man and her marriage is arranged in the worst possible sense, she is behaving as Egyptian society would expect a wife to behave in the circumstances. Mahfouz is not making a wholly conventional judgement.

Mahfouz has emphasised of course that it is her parents who are responsible for her downfall. ‘… her parents had no moral scruples….[they]… were Satan’s wily allies plotting her downfall.’ [4.] The reference to ’Satan’ is, I think, a concession to religious views.

The young people, before the young man attempts to seduce Ihsan, have of course been engaging in social dancing and drinking alcohol. The prejudices of more religious readers are catered for by this Westernised dissipation. An attempt at seduction, if not worse, is just the outcome they would expect.

The other odd incident is that when the party go on shore Al-Da’im sees an old man who reminds him of his father. ‘His father, if he were able to leave his bed, would look just like this man, leaning on a stick at every step.’ [42.] This has the emotional impact on Al-Daim that meeting his father might have done. The plot, however, is allowed to unroll as intended. It works in the same way as the anticipation of the political crisis. It is a strategy that compensates for the over-rapid development of the melodramatic plot.

The next morning Al-Daim has a hangover. He is in a morbid mood. ‘He could find only one answer: suicide. That was how a devoted egoist would terminate his life.’ [43.]

The action of the denouement unrolls with a clockwork precision which is so melodramatic that it borders on farce. It is in fact quite visual. One wonders if it has a model in the popular cinema, or even the stage. In quick succession, Al-Da’im’s father, Qasim Bey Fahmi and the Bey’s wife all turn up.

Al-Da’im is not prepared to see his father. ‘He saw his father… standing at the threshold leaning on a stick, casting a fixed, sullen look at him.’ [44.] He is even less prepared for the Bey’s wife.  ‘”Come on, show me the room where my husband is secluded with your chaste wife.”’ [45.]

We assume that Al-Ikhshidi has betrayed Al-Daim. We are not told how he contrived to have everybody arrive at just the right time.

This is the end. ‘”It’s all over. No more job. No more salary. Let’s go beg together!”’ Ihsan, perhaps curiously in the circumstances, but consistently with the way Mahfouz has been portraying her, reacts like a real wife. ‘”What will become of us?”’ [45.]

There are a few loose ends to be tied up in a final chapter. The Bey resigns. His wife divorces him, but does not go to the newspapers.

Mahgub is posted to Aswan. This is a joke. The Aswan governorate is so remote that its southern border is on the Sudanese frontier. Al-Da’im’s prediction that he will be ‘…banished to the most rural district….’ has come true. [38.]

We do not learn what happens to Ihsan. Mahfouz has portrayed her with some indulgence. He is nevertheless writing in a society where women, and outcomes for women, are less important.

I have mentioned that I think that Cairo Modern is in form a genre novel, even if it is not possible to identify a particular genre. I have said that I think it is melodramatic. I have suggested that the portrayal of the four young men is didactic. Consistently with this, I think, Cairo Modern is moralistic.

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im violates all the social norms. He tastes success. He is punished. The cup is dashed from his lips. The besotted Bey falls from grace as well. This is pretty much what conventional readers would expect. Mahfouz is not aiming for an alternative, bohemian audience.

Meanwhile, Mahgub Abd al-Da’im’s friends pursue their chosen careers. They are rewarded. The final indulgence for Ihsan, perhaps, is that she is allowed to slip out of the end of the novel without being mentioned at all.

Cairo Modern is a limited novel. It has strengths. As a genre novel, it works well. The plotting is tight. The characterisation is no deeper than it needs be. The motivations, though sometimes crude, are adequate. Nothing is irrelevant.

Its subject matter, the poverty of the Egyptian people, the corruption of Egyptian public life and the often bewildering changes at that date in the relations between men and women, could hardly be more serious. Some of the incidents in the novel – the charity event, the marriage of Mahgub and Ihsan, the bedroom farce with which the novel ends – are exaggerated and even absurd. Nevertheless it is a novel which is founded on reality.

Reality, in later novels, is something that Mahfouz does very well.

Photo by Ed Yourdon on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA


Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is, amongst other things, a post-apocalyptic novel. The holocaust has already happened. It is referred to in a flashback. ‘The clock stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.’ We never learn exactly what caused the disaster. All government and all communication have ceased. There is no-one left to communicate explanations. There does not even appear to be anyone to figure out what the explanations might be.

From other flashbacks and from the state of the world we learn what happened after the holocaust. The world burned. The trees burned.

The earth is covered with ash. Ash clogs the rivers and hides the sun. The air is laden with ash. It is difficult to breathe and often impossible to see. ‘When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His head rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked towards the east for any light but there was none.’

Nothing resembling civilisation survives. There are one or two references to communes. There is no community. ‘The country was stripped and plundered years ago and they found nothing in the houses and the buildings by the roadside.’

There are two protagonists, a man and a boy. They are father and son. They do not have names. They are just ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’. This creates a certain universality.

The man is coughing. He is going to die. ‘… he crawled coughing and he coughed for a long time.’ Sometimes he coughs blood. The man carries on until the end.

The boy’s mother has committed suicide. ‘We’re not survivors,’ she says. ‘We’re the walking dead in a horror movie.’

The boy was born after the holocaust. ‘A few nights later she gave birth in their bed by the light of a drycell lamp. Gloves meant for dishwashing.’

The boy has known no other world. ‘…to the boy [the man] was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed.’

When he boy sees himself reflected in the glass of a window the thinks it is another little boy. ‘A face was looking at him. A boy, about his age, wrapped in an outsize wool coat with the sleeves turned back.’

In the burned world there is nothing living except a few humans. There are fewer humans now than there were. ‘In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing.’

All the plants have been either burned or choked by ash. There is nothing for the birds and animals to live on. They have disappeared. ‘Do you think there might be crows somewhere?’ The world is dead.

Some of the humans scavenge. They depend on finding canned goods. ‘He sorted through the cans and went back [to the boy] and they sat by the fire and ate the last of their crackers and a tin of sausage.’

The rest have resorted to cannibalism. The cannibals are violent and cruel. ‘Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burned. The smell was hideous…. Help us, they whispered. Please help.

The cannibals are also frightening. ‘They came shuffling through the ash casting their hooded heads from side to side. Some of them wearing canister masks. One in a biohazard suit. Stained and filthy. Slouching along with clubs in their hands, lengths of pipe…. Quick, he whispered. Quick…. The boy was frozen with fear. We have to run.’

Some of the cannibals have elaborated a social organisation. They are not just gangs. ‘He woke… in time to see the marchers appear four abreast. …all wearing red scarves at their necks. The phalanx following carried spears or lances…. Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves… and after that the women… and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites….’

After the holocaust there was something perhaps worse. The man remembers. ‘Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. The screams of the murdered. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road.’

The homicidal madness seems to be exhausted. ‘No more balefires on the distant ridges. He thought the blood cults must have all consumed one another.’ All that is left now is an urge to survive that has lost all the humanity that might make sense of the need.

The man and the boy are travelling. The man pushes their few possessions in a grocery cart. ‘They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here.’

The world is not safe. They must assume that any other human beings are either cannibals or thieves. They must always take precautions. ‘This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road.’

It is not clear what they are moving for. This is not a world where anything seems to be of much value. It is ‘barren, silent, godless.’ There is a simple, binary ethical distinction. ‘They’re going to kill those people, aren’t they? There going to eat them, aren’t they? And we couldnt help them because they’d eat us too. We wouldnt ever eat anybody, would we?  Even if we were starving? Because we’re the good guys.’

It is, I think, though the point is not made explicitly, something close to a vision of hell.

In a New York Review of Books article, the author Michael Chabon described the novel as ‘a lyrical epic of horror’. Leaving aside the slightly dubious claim about a book, particularly a prose work, being simultaneously an epic and a lyric, I think Chabon is wrong.

Horror, as a genre, has something of the Gothic about it. It requires an element of the supernatural. Horror, as a feeling, is a reaction to an experience which violates deeply-held norms so completely that it is psychologically difficult, to the point of impossibility, to accept that what is happening is real. The focus of horror in the world of The Road is the cannibalism. Yet in the world of The Road, the cannibalism is real. The people doing it are – or once were – human.

Chabon also claims that ‘the adventure story in both its modern and epic forms… structures the narrative’. This is also I think not true. Action, in the adventure story, derives from the interaction of the personality of the protagonists – the hero, in particular – and the events to which the hero is exposed. The outcome is the mastery of events through the actions of the hero. There is a logic to it.

In The Road, there is no logic. Events are random. The man and the boy encounter marauders. Sometimes they shoot. Usually they run. Always they hide. The outcome of one chance encounter has no influence on the nature of the next. They manage to escape. They find somewhere temporarily safe. They master nothing. They just keep running.

The man and the boy search the buildings that are not too far from the road. Usually they find nothing. Sometimes they come upon a cache of canned food.’ Crate upon crate of canned goods.’ This is equally random.

The personality of the protagonists has little influence on events. It is not quite clear that the man has a personality any more. His interiority is restricted.

He dreams, more often than he would wish. ‘In his dreams his pale bride came to him out of a green and leafy canopy. Her nipples pipeclayed and her rib bones painted white.’

He is suspicious of such dreams. ‘He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death.’

He remembers. ‘He could remember everything of her save her scent. Seated in a theatre with her beside him leaning forward listening to the music.’ He appears to have no other subjective life.

The man is practical. It is not clear whether he was always practical or whether he has become so since the catastrophe. There is simply no point in character analysis of that literary sort in a world that has been burned.

Like Moll Flanders or Robinson Crusoe, the protagonists of the novels of the quintessentially protestant petty-bourgeois Daniel Defoe, the man constantly reviews his stock of goods. ‘He sat in the sand and inventoried the contents of the knapsack. The binoculars. A half pint bottle of gasoline almost full. The bottle of water. A pair of pliers. Two spoons. He set everything out in a row. There were five small tins of food and he chose a tin of sausages and one of corn and he opened these with the little army can opener and set them at the edge of the fore and they sat watching the labels char and curl.’ Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe were also survivors.

The man is practical. The shifts he makes to survive are frequent and described in great detail. ‘He checked the valve on the tank that it was turned off and swung the little stove around on the footlocker and sat and went to work dismantling it. He unscrewed the bottom panel and he removed the burner assembly and disconnected the two burners with a small crescent wrench.’ Practicality is often a characteristic of the protagonists of post-apocalyptic stories. The protagonists of Walter Miller’s stories Dumb Waiter and Dark Benediction are practical to a degree.

The novel is narrated consistently from the point of view of the man. The boy creates interiority by silence. ‘So when are you going to talk to me again? I’m talking now. Are you sure?’

The boy has two other personality traits. He is ferociously attached to his father. ‘Take me with you, the boy said. He looked as if he was going to cry. No. I want you to wait here. Please, Papa.’

The boy also gets upset when they are unable to help someone they encounter. ‘There’s nothing we could have done. [The boy] didn’t answer. He’s going to die. We can’t share what we have or we’ll die too. I know.’

In the same way that personality has been reduced to the minimum, emotion is also restricted. The vocabulary of feeling is reduced to one word. ‘The boy was very scared.’ The only other emotion is occasional anger. We can tell when the man has been angry because when has been impatient with the boy he apologises. ‘The boy didn’t answer. [The man] was close to losing his temper with him and then he realised he was shaking head in the dark. Okay, he said. Okay.’

Apart from fear and anger the world of ash and night is numb. It is traumatised. It is not post-traumatic, despite the need for hyper-vigilance. The trauma has not ended. It seems unlikely that it will ever end.

Like personality and emotion, language is restricted. What appear to be sentences – they have initial capitals and are provided with a full stop, a period, at the end – are often not sentences at all. They lack main verbs. ‘The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of colour. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke.’

Sometimes there are participial phrases. They have, as the term implies, a participle. They lack the auxiliary verb that is needed – though the phrase can be understood without it – to make it grammatically complete. ‘Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop.’

There are nominal clauses. ‘He studied what he could see.’ They look deceptively like a relative.

There are compound sentences. The connections between the clauses are made by conjunctions. ‘He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again.’

Where there are relative clauses they are not used to express relationships between concepts. They make precise statements about location and place. ‘The shore was lined with birch trees that stood bare pale against the dark of the evergreens beyond.’

This is technically ‘parataxis’. It is language without syntax. Relationships of hierarchy and subordination have gone. Statements are simply juxtaposed.

Parataxis is more typical of speech than writing. Writing, in The Road, consists of old newspapers and a few rain-sodden books.

Parataxis has a primitive quality. That is appropriate. This is a primitive world. The only appropriate feelings here are the primitive feelings. Most behaviours are primitive too. They concern survival.

Abstract, Latinate words – the language of formal writing – have also largely disappeared. Where Latinate terms occur they are words such as ‘glaucoma’ that describe tangible things and have entered colloquial speech.

‘At evening a dull sulphur light from the flames. The standing water in the roadside ditches black with the runoff. The mountains shrouded away. They crossed a river by a concrete bridge where skeins of ash and slurry moved slowly in the current. Charred bits of wood.’

The Latinate terms here are ‘sulphur’, ‘mountains’ and ‘concrete’. The words that convey the meaning are ‘dull’, ‘black’, ‘shroud’, ‘skein’, ‘ash’, ‘slurry’ and ‘charred’. They are Anglo-Saxon words. They are suggestive, deathly, and menacing.

There is one question that inescapably arises. Why carry on?

The man’s over-riding motivation is his attachment to boy. ‘My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.’ The attachment is passionate and spiritual. ‘He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.’

At other times the references to God are more ambivalent. ‘Will I see you at the last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? O God, he whispered. Oh God.’

The wife of the man who finds the boy at the end seems to believe in God. [She]… would talk to him sometimes about God.’ For the boy this is difficult. ‘He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father….’

It does not appear to be religion that motivates the man to carry on. It is something perhaps more primitive; it is survival. ‘This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up.’

It is not clear that there is a purpose to survival. At one point the boy asks his father, ‘What are our long term goals?’ He startles the man with the sophistication of his language. He startles him also, perhaps, with the content of the question.

There is no answer. They carry on until they can go no further and do no more.

The Road is an allegory. It is not, I think, an adventure story as such or a horror story in the usual sense. It certainly is a post-apocalyptic story, but at the same time it is more than that. It is in fact a rather complex allegory.

There is an endless journey. There are random dangers. There is a need for constant vigilance. There are occasional windfalls. Without the windfalls they would not survive.

This is an allegory of life. This is how, for something like 120,000 years, homo sapiens sapiens survived.

The man cares. The boy learns to care from him.

This is an allegory of humanity. One of the things that human beings do that makes us different from the other primates is that we care.

The man finds food. He takes care of the boy. When necessary, he kills.

The man protects and provides. This is an allegory of love.

The man and the boy carry on. They carry on in a ruined world when there is nothing to live for any more. This is an allegory of trauma and survival.

I am sure of the literary value of this novel. It is consistent, vivid, plausible and fully imagined.

I am less sure of the philosophical value. I am bothered by the nihilism. I understand that human beings are cruel, and capable of regression. McCarthy’s imagined world, however, is so self-contained – so complete – that I do not know how to map his dark vision onto the world I am more familiar with.

I need to create a context. I can only do that by reading some more of McCarthy’s books.

Photo credit: afevrier via VisualHunt /  CC BY-NC-SA

Cycle of Destruction

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter J Miller, Jr

A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) is one of the most important English-language books of the second half of the twentieth century. It is science fiction. It is as good as anything that was written in the ‘mainstream’ at that time.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is about the nuclear Holocaust. It is alternative history. Miller imagines that nuclear war broke out in the 1960s, shortly after his novel was written, and that civilisation was destroyed. A Canticle for Leibowitz is amongst other things a post-apocalyptic novel.

Miller’s history is based on the intellectual history of Europe after the fall of Rome. Miller’s concept of history is cyclical. A very similar intellectual sequence is repeated in the former United States, after the nuclear Holocaust. It is also a pessimistic history, even perhaps fatalistic. After two thousand years the Holocaust happens again.

The novel is in three parts, divided from each other by several hundred years. A Dark Age occurs six hundred years after the Holocaust. Six hundred years later, there is a scientific renaissance, and dynastic states are emerging from the chaos. After another six hundred years, an industrial state emerges. It is sophisticated enough to develop nuclear weapons, and launch another nuclear war.

The action of the novel centres on the Albertian Order of Leibowitz. The Albertian order, to my mind, is a wonderful invention of Miller’s. It is a celibate order, modelled rather closely on the Benedictines. Its abbey is in the South-western desert, on the road to ‘Old El Paso’. The members of the order are Bookleggers or Memorisers. They are tasked with preserving the fragments of the scientific knowledge of the ancient ‘Euro-American’ civilisation. They dutifully conserve and copy; they understand very little of the scientific legacy.

Almost all the action takes place in and around the Abbey of the order. Abbots change and the abbey evolves, but the location of the action in the abbey is consistent. It is one of the devices that unites the three parts of the novel.

Much of the record of the ancient culture has been destroyed. The Simplification was a wave of bloody and destructive lynchings and book-burnings that followed the Holocaust – the ‘Flame Deluge’, as Miller dubs it in a passage of biblical pastiche. One of the martyrs of the Simplification is the eponymous founder of the Order, Leibowitz himself.

Leibowitz was a weapons engineer who lost his wife in the Holocaust. He joined the Cistercians, an offshoot of the Benedictines, and became a priest. After some years he was permitted to found his order and preserve the ‘Memorabilia’, as the fragmentary manuscripts are known. ‘Memorabilia’, I think, is another wonderful invention of Miller’s. Albertus Magnus, the patron saint of the order, was a thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian who was very much involved in the revival of science.

The action of the first part of the novel turns on the case for the canonisation of Leibowitz. It is finally successful, and Leibowitz becomes a saint. In the Dark Ages of the opening chapters of A Canticle for Leibowitz, it is the miraculous that matters. At the beginning of the novel the simple novice, Francis, encounters an enigmatic, cynical pilgrim in the desert. The pilgrim, in an illiterate age, knows not only Latin but Hebrew. The pilgrim sets off a chain of events which result in Brother Francis discovering relics of the Blessed Leibowitz. The reader, though not Francis, soon realises that the pilgrim is in fact Leibowitz – six hundred years after his death. This concealing of information from the characters while it is revealed to the reader is an example of the irony that pervades the novel.

Leibowitz is a mysterious, subversive and thoroughly delightful figure. He is the most complex of the characters, to call them that, in the novel. He survives, by some no doubt miraculous means which Miller never explains, his very public martyrdom and death. He is the pilgrim in the first part of the novel and the ‘hermit’ in the second. In the third and final part, he becomes the old beggar. He is, of course, a Catholic priest, a Catholic martyr and finally a Catholic saint. Notwithstanding his emphatically endorsed Catholicism, he is also a Jew.

Leibowitz is, in fact, the Wandering Jew of Medieval legend. He waits for a Messiah. The Messiah never comes. In the world of A Canticle for Leibowitz, there is no hope of salvation. Christ the Redeemer is not present in the novel. Miller, who for several years after World War Two was a Catholic, had lapsed.

In the second part of the novel there is a revival of interest in science. Pfardentrott, a rather mad scientist from the newly emerging state of Texarkana, has heard of the documents. He wants them sent to Texarkana so that his collegium can examine them. Finally he accepts that he has to go to the abbey.

Pfardentrott is shocked. He is shocked because some of the monks have managed to build a primitive dynamo which powers an arc light. He is also shocked because the texts he finds in the abbey are of great value, and no-one other than the monks knew of their existence.

Pfardentrott and the abbot try to be civil. Finally they clash. Pfardentrott believes that religion is superstition. The abbot believes that scientific curiosity is Original Sin. He believes it led to the Flame Deluge, and that the revival of science will lead to another holocaust.

The monks dismantle the dynamo. They take down the arc light and put the crucifix back. Pfardentrott leaves. It is a hollow victory. At the beginning of the third and last part of A Canticle for Leibowitz, the Holocaust is already impending.

The Order has acquired a spaceship. It has been busily recruiting spacers as monks. Its role is to take the memorabilia on microfilm and ensure the continuity of the Apostolic Succession of the Catholic Church on the colony planets among the stars. The idea of a medieval order of monks with a spaceship is rather wonderful.

Someone starts the nuclear war. The monks give shelter of refugees, many of them sick and injured. An organisation called Green Star relief sets up a Mercy Camp down the road. It offers legalised euthanasia to the incurable. The abbot rows with the doctor who is testing the refugees for radiation. The doctor argues that pain is the only form of evil he can deal with. The abbot responds that in the eyes of the church euthanasia is evil.

This is an argument between the values of humanism and the need for obedience to God’s will. The orthodox interpretation of Original Sin is that it is rebellion against God. It could hardly be more serious.

It is not clear who wins. The doctor leaves. The abbot is nearly arrested for picketing the Mercy Camp. He tries to persuade a very sick woman to refuse euthanasia for her child. He fails.

The small party of monks leave for the stars. The abbot is convinced that human beings will display exactly the same self-destructive tendencies on a new planet. This may be survival, in some sense. It is not salvation.

One of the most mysterious and puzzling stories in A Canticle for Leibowitz is the story of Mrs Grales. Mrs Grales is a tomato seller. She suffers from genetic damage as a result of the Flame Deluge. She has a second head growing from her shoulder. She calls the head Rachel, and wants it baptised.

At the end of the novel there is another nuclear strike. The abbot is dying. Mrs Grales has died, but her second head lives on. The abbot tries to baptise her. Rachel refuses. She is preternaturally innocent. She was not born in sin.

The abbot takes Rachel’s innocence as hope for salvation. It is more ambiguous than that. Rachel is innocent, but she is also a mutant. It is not quite clear that she is human. Is Miller suggesting that humanity can only be saved if it evolves into something else?

A Canticle for Leibowitz is saturated with Catholic images. The theology may be heretical. Miller uses it to make his novel deeply coherent intellectually. A Canticle for Leibowitz prophesies nuclear war. It is prophetic in another sense. It is a fundamentally serious tract for the times.

As a young airman Miller participated in a raid on the Abbey of Monte Cassino, the original house of the Benedictine order. As a young husband, the detonation of a nuclear device over Hiroshima spared Miller being posted to the Pacific theatre to risk his life again. Miller’s reflections on these experiences clearly contribute to the writing of A Canticle for Leibowitz.

A Canticle for Leibowitz won a Hugo. The year before, Miller had won his first Hugo for his short novel, The Darfsteller. In The Darfsteller Miller announces his decision to quit science fiction, and his intention of writing ‘one last great’ before he does so. He also predicts that he will not know what to do with the rest of his life.

The ‘one last great’ was A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller was thirty-seven when it was published. He lived for more than another thirty years. He wrote and published very little. After the death of his wife he committed suicide.

He never did figure out what to do with the rest of his life.

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