Respected Sir; Wedding Song; The Search

Naguib Mahfouz

translated from the Arabic
Anchor Books 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
When Othman Bayyumi is employed as a grade 8 clerk, he is just one of many new employees welcomed by the Director General. But his ambition to attain that lofty position himself is no idle fancy: for him achieving promotion and serving the government become a religious obsession, "the path of glory". So he studies after hours, does extra translation work, cultivates his superiors, saves like a miser, and spurns politics, climbing steadily towards his goal. It is only desire for women which can draw him out, but he denies himself love and marriage until it is almost too late. Respected Sir (Hadrat al-Muhtaram, 1975) is an intense psychological study which never leaves its not particularly attractive central subject, but Mahfouz makes it almost into a fairy-tale, told with a light and (even in translation) inimitable prose. It is effortlessly readable, with dramatic episodes covered in short chapters which flow easily one after the other, just like the years of Othman's life, and the result is an absolute gem of a novel.

Set around a theatre troupe, Wedding Song (Afrah al-Qubbah, 1981) is a novel in four parts, telling the same events from different first-person perspectives. The marriage of prompter Karam and cashier Halima starts off well, but to make ends meet they turn their house into a gambling and drug den, for which they are arrested and serve a prison sentence. Meanwhile their son Abbas marries one of the theatre women, incurring the jealousy of the actor Tariq, but they are left in poverty and she dies along with their infant son. That past is revealed to us through flashbacks and memories, the catalyst for which is the troupe's rehearsal of a play by Abbas based on the events in his family house. The four protagonists have very different responses to the play: Tariq, still driven by jealousy and anger, sees in it a confession of murder; Halima sees it as a judgement on her; Karam tries to pretend indifference; and Abbas himself is still coming to terms with the death of his wife.

Saber has been raised by his mother for a better life, but when she is imprisoned and her money confiscated, and then dies soon after release, the only future he can imagine is to become "a ruffian, a hustler or a pimp" — or to search for his father, who his mother has revealed to be still living. So begins The Search (al-Tariq, 1964). Saber goes to Cairo, where he lives off his capital while looking for his father. He is torn between two women: Elham ("clear, cloudless skies", a "fresh breeze") offers him friendship and love and redemption; Karima ("thunder and rain", "wild nights", and a "stormy sea") offers him sexual passion and a descent into hell. Eventually he is driven to murder, but Saber retains options and choices to the end and his journey makes a compelling criminal portrait.

These three novels have some common themes — male confusions over women and the power of sexual obsession, failures of communication between people with radically different views of the world — and a common setting in the seamier parts of Cairo. But they show off Mahfouz's ability to handle different styles and forms, and indeed to make us think afresh about the novel itself. Naguib Mahfouz won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.

August 2002

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Related reviews:
- Naguib Mahfouz - Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth
- more Arabic literature
- books about Egypt + North Africa
%T Respected Sir; Wedding Song; The Search
%A Mahfouz, Naguib
%M Arabic
%I Anchor Books
%D 2001
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0385498365
%P 454pp