Potter's Book Blog

Reviews of world literature from 1900 to the present.

Category: Middle Eastern


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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My Name Is Red

This difficult and rich novel craftily melds narrative techniques as disparate as the Eastern and European cultures that serve as its substance; there is enough murder, melodrama, and mendacity, however, to ensure that technical considerations do not come at the cost of good storytelling.

Orhan Pamuk / Turkish / 1998 / 452 pages
Translated from the Turkish by Erdag Göknar

If one were to compose a narrative dealing with the collision of cultures, then surely the city of Istanbul would be its ideal setting. At various points the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, Istanbul has amalgamated an impressively diverse range of cultural influences. Situated geographically not only in Europe (to the west of the Bosphorus River), but also Asia (to the river’s east), this metropolis serves as the current seat of government for the country of Turkey, a quasi-Middle Eastern state that in contemporary times has struggled with its secularized military, religious citizenry, and aspirations to EU membership. Orhan Pamuk’s excellent novel, My Name Is Red, explores the contours of this identity crisis through the prism of an Ottoman sultan’s team of manuscript illustrators, or “miniaturists.” The lessons therein, however, are as timely now as they were in the 1500s.

The plot is simple enough. Without the convenience of the printing press, sultans in the Ottoman Empire made resort to handprinted manuscripts, the texts of which were often accompanied by illustrations hemmed into the margins of the pages in miniature scale. These labor-intensive enterprises required entire teams of miniaturists that would work for weeks at a time to illustrate an entire book and within these teams of illustrators, a formalized guildsmen structure dictated which of them were masters, assistants, etc. Toward the end of the Ottoman Empire, Islamic miniaturists were conflicted over the merits of encroaching imagery from the “Franks” (Europeans). Some argued that the realism inherent in the Franks’ illustrations bordered on idolatry, a sin in the eyes of Allah. Others argued that Turkish illustrators had a great deal to learn from imitating the Frankish masters rather then their own luminaries. The debate was charged both aesthetically and religiously.

My Name Is Red focuses on the events surrounding the composition of a secret manuscript commissioned by the holy sultan himself. Rejecting the traditional guild framework, the sultan has instead assembled a team under the guidance of a rogue miniaturist — Enishte Effendi — who coerces his individual illustrators to work in isolation from one another, thereby breeding confusion, jealousy, and fear of the book’s purpose. The manuscript itself is intended to synthesize Ottoman and Frankish techniques and will potentially be gifted to European emissaries as a sign of the sultan’s power and cosmopolitanism (relatively speaking, of course). The illustrators quibble amongst one another and erratic street prophets threaten to mobilize gangs of thugs to eradicate from the streets of Istanbul anything smacking of the infidels’ influence. Additionally, the more formal guildsmen, having been circumvented in the book’s composition, are bitter to the core. You can see why there is a lot of finger pointing when the team’s foremost miniaturist turns up dead.

Pamuk, thankfully, is not content with a straightforward murder mystery. We know this from the opening chapter where the first words of the narrative come out of the mouth of a mutilated corpse lying frozen in the bottom of a well (“I Am A Corpse”). As if this wasn’t disorienting enough, each chapter switches perspective, always maintaining the first-person narrative, but occasionally masking the identity of the speaker. Some chapters, for example, are straightforwardly titled (“I Am Called Black” where we are aware that the character speaking is, indeed, named Black) while others are simply descriptions of people whose identity we, as readers, would love to find out (“I Will Be Called A Murderer”). Certain chapters also feature drawings that speak to us as personified trees, horses, gold coins, and a jar of red ink. As it turns out, these seemingly inane chapters constitute an interesting subplot surrounding a coffeehouse that all of the miniaturists frequent after work. Each of the main characters are given at least a handful of chapters in which to speak, but the majority of the novel is told through the perspective of Black, Enishte Effendi’s nephew, and Shekure, his daughter.

Black returns to Istanbul after a twelve-year absence on the eve of the illustrator’s murder. His frantic uncle, fearing the imminent demise of his secret book project, enlists his help in sleuthing through the city’s streets to unearth which of the many suspects is the guilty party. Black is a hapless blockhead who blunders his way through the entire novel, passing jumbled messages in between powerful interests and helplessly pursuing his uncle’s daughter’s hand in marriage. Shekure, for her part, plays very little substantive role in the events that unfold, but provides an important and fascinating female perspective in a world dominated by capricious and over-intellectualized males. Rather important figures whose influences substantially drive the motivations of the main characters (such as the ultra orthodox preacher Nusret Hojah as well as the sultan himself) are never given their own opportunities at the first-person. Because of this, the book’s meta-narrative is somewhat akin to limited omniscience: it seems as if Pamuk, as the author, can totally craft the inner workings of a character at his leisure, but this capacity is limited only to a subset of Istanbul’s inhabitants.

The authorial conceits hardly stop there. The new age technique of cycling through many character’s perspectives a chapter at a time is situated in a system of elaborate dialogues on the merits of artistry, the tenants of Islam, and the arbitration between cultures. Furthermore, many of these insights come in the form of encapsulated parables or historical anecdotes that the characters swap back and forth like baseball cards. What results is a very strange synthesis: a cycling first-person narrative ensconced within a more repetitive, measured style similar to that which would emerge from an oral tradition. Just as Homer makes endless reference to “Dawn of the rosy fingers” in The Odyssey as he begins each new anecdote, so too do Pamuk’s characters resort to repeating the same story of Hüsrev and Shirin over and over (and over) again. To this end a strange tension permeates the book where we are both energized by the novelty of cycling perspectives and also enervated by endless passages of repetitive dialogue and description.

This complicates the task of unearthing the murderer. Because he is given many dozens of pages of first-person narration before his identity is revealed and because we know well ahead of time that the murderer is right under our noses interacting with other characters throughout the novel, we are forced to read every page rather closely in an honest attempt to out-sleuth Black. Perhaps if the murderer, in making some characteristic comment in his first-person accounts, accidentally reveals some identifying clue, then we’ll be able to determine his name. Contrast the closeness with which we must read these sections to the longer passages describing the contents of libraries where — literally — we can thumb through five or six pages without losing much in the way of content. This juxtaposition gets old after a while. The book runs out of steam at the halfway mark and it then languishes through another 100 pages before taking off again in the closing chapters. From my perspective, this delayed reward is worth the effort, but I would hesitate to recommend this novel to too broad an audience.

In the end, Pamuk pulls off a feat that is a personal favorite of mine: the implication of the reader in the action of the novel. Many of the characters come off as unreliable narrators and oftentimes their accounts are addressed to you, the reader. The characters infer different things about your disposition and background and make an effort to appeal to your sensibilities in different ways. Although each chapter is clearly “authored” by a character, it is not immediately clear who the “author” of the meta-narrative itself may be. In this way, a terrible curiosity hangs over the novel: for a book that is so honest about being a written account assembled from the viewpoints of many people, it is disturbingly quiet about who (or what) gathered all of these accounts and bound them together as My Name Is Red. I hesitate to reveal too much about the answer to this question, but I will say that, long after the plot has spun itself out, Pamuk buries a surprise in the final lines of the book that prompts you to reconsider the structure of everything you’ve read.

Rating: 6 / 10

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