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.

Photo credit: RA.AZ via / CC BY