by JDP

Infused with a new sense of timeliness after the recent revolts in the streets of Cairo, this short novel explores the heterogeneous mix of influences that fought over the fate of a newly-independent 1960s Egypt; Naguib relies on shifting perspectives and highly symbolic characters to chart out the complicated religious-political landscape in subtle and interesting capacities.

Naguib Mahfouz / Egyptian / 1967 / 181 pages
Translated from the Arabic by Fatma Moussa Mahmoud

For a novel that ostensibly takes place within the confines of a small boardinghouse in Alexandria, Miramar is a fairly complex narrative. Mahfouz centers the book’s action around three angry physical altercations between various guests at the house (which seems a simple enough premise), but the broader social contexts underlying these three altercations are so nuanced that they require almost the entire novel to describe completely. Indeed, as the book cycles through four narrators in rapid succession, it takes four separate tellings of each event before we, as readers (or at least as non-Egyptian readers) can fully comprehend the implications of what played out in the first few dozen pages. This is not to say that the insight we gain at the end is particularly revelatory; this is a book that is simple in its presentation and unpretentious in its writing. Rather, we settle for a highly manageable thesis: our political environment and our social norms profoundly impact our day-to-day interpersonal interactions and, as this landscape changes around us, so do the ways in which we stand in relation to one another. How would the incidents at the boardinghouse have transpired if they had been set 20 years earlier? 20 years later? Mahfouz tentatively offers us some suggestions on both ends, it seems.

This is achieved in a Mann-like (Mann-esque? Mannly? Mannish? by this, I just mean in the style of Thomas Mann) fashion by constructing characters that individually represent different bodies of religious / political / class thought. Thus, the old-school populist character is confronted by the old-school landed gentry, who is in turn thrown in with the new-age independent feminist, who in her own time is challenged by the new-age aristocratic youth looking for ways (however illegitimate) to equal the material acquisitions of his father and grandfather. That they should all butt heads in an environment as mundane as a shabby boardinghouse is so much the better. Mahfouz reminds us that we need not travel too far or search too hard before we run up against the influences of our broader social milieu. The liberals are everywhere; the conservatives are everywhere; an argument is a handshake. But a repeated handshake, even between the same two people, is inconstant.

To underscore the mutability of interpersonal relations in a constantly shifting world, Mahfouz employs shifting narrative perspectives. The novel is divided into five sections, the first and last told by an elderly former revolutionary (by far the most sympathetic and cathartic character in the novel) and the middle three related by young men of variously odious dispositions. While the aging revolutionary seems inclined to cast the Egyptian youth in a favorable light, their own thoughts reveal them to be generally hedonistic and morally unanchored. Indeed, what is truly troubling about the novel is its author’s thinly-veiled criticism of Egypt’s male youth during this period. Those young men who committed themselves to a political ideology are literally ruined when the tides shift; whether as a result of fear of the police state or of the guilt they feel about adopting positions different from their friends, they are a psychologically troubled and paranoid lot. Other youth, less committed to ideals, range aimlessly through Egyptian society looking for cheap pleasures and illicit sources of income. They want loose women, fast money, and no restraints.

The broader point is that none of the conflicts in the novel would be taking place if people just understood one another better, but this mutual accord is impossible when the status quo is rent in two. A young woman’s family wants to marry her to an older man for financial gain, yet she demands more of a marriage. Aspiring entrepreneurs’ efforts are thwarted by their suspicions about the state’s confiscation of whatever profits they may make. A person’s viewpoints may classify him as an awe-inspiring rebel on Tuesday, but relegate him to a subversive element on Wednesday. Mahfouz’s characters are often caught in difficult positions. The Communists and the Muslim Brotherhood are equally problematic political parties. Highly motivated women want to have equal opportunities, but no solid infrastructure exists for them to educate themselves. Young, conscientious students struggle to make sense of the political turmoil that engendered their current precarious social situations, but find that it’s almost impossible to synthesize the many contradictory ideologies that were variously invoked in the course of Egypt’s push for independence.

To this end, the novel is a highly interesting cultural set piece. Beyond that, though, I think it has some structural problems and is overall too simple and abbreviated in its construction to be considered a true masterwork. At the novel’s outset, italicized passages are interspersed with the normal flow of narration and these are, it seems, intended to be flashbacks that are conjured up by whatever the narrator is currently experiencing. These are used to great effect early on in the novel, but become increasingly sparse as the novel progresses and eventually disappear completely (for no apparent reason) by the time it concludes. The repeated structure of events-viewed-from-different-angles carries on a bit further than is actually useful, which is unfortunate for a book that lies closer to a novella, rather than an actual novel, in its length. There is also probably an inherent difficulty in reading the book without being well-steeped in Egyptian history; no doubt there was a whole range of references I failed to pick up on with my limited knowledge of the highly complicated nature of Egyptian politics.

Mahfouz was famously prolific, however, and there’s certainly enough in Miramar to whet one’s appetite for more. Along with Salman Rushdie, he was also an incredibly important and controversial figure in the Islamic world. I’m not sure I selected the best point of entry into Mahfouz’s massive body of work, but Miramar is much shorter than many of his other, denser books and its international reputation is well cemented. I’d recommend it heartily for those interested in the current events transpiring in Egypt or for those consciously looking to move into Middle Eastern literature.

Rating: 4 / 10

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