- Morning and Evening Talk: A Modern Arabic Novel
- American University in Cairo Press, 192pp.
To solve an acrostic, one usually takes the first or last letter of lines of verse or prose and places them in order next to each other. Strung together, these letters form a new word or phrase, often an authorial in-joke. The late Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel Laureate and famed Arabic writer, has created its fictional equivalent in Morning and Evening Talk – a slender brainteaser and a creative challenge to play with in his lamplit years.
His ostensible inspiration for the book’s biographic (and alphabetic) entries of an Egyptian clan, however, lies not in puzzles but in manuscripts. Mahfouz takes his cue from Arab historians, who compiled massive biographical dictionaries during the ninth century and on into the next millennium. Prominent people – religious, litigious, political – are all scrupulously investigated and their lives boiled into paragraphs.
Reading these medieval entries can be as exciting as perusing annotated bibliographies at times, since the authors must restrict their scope and still cover important points: years of birth and death, full name and an explanation of its genealogy, ethnicity, education, occupation, and moral probity. What lifts them beyond the mundane is the inclusion of a telling anecdote, a quirky personality trait, a defining event, an obituary made literary.
Experimenting with this structure, Mahfouz keeps certain characteristics and throws away others. Like his predecessors, his tone is dry, detached, with simple sentences. Each entry starts with the full name of the character, giving the reader an abbreviated genealogy (Hakim Hussein Qabil, for instance, is Hasim, the son of Hussein Qabil) and notes salient characteristics (black almond eyes, epileptic fits, prone to laughing), education, and subsequent career.
Ethnicity, too, is a major concern. Tied by blood and especially marriage, each character’s unique life is trapped in a nexus of family history. Your monetary and genetic inheritance, your rank in the birth order, your father’s wealth, your cousin’s misfortune – all of these, Mahfouz says, go into shaping your seemingly independent decisions. Here is the anti-social Ghassan, for example, choosing his political destiny:
“Perhaps part of his contempt for nationalism was to do with the fervor of his poor relations, Amr and Surur’s families. He was unenthusiastic about the 1919 Revolution as it unfolded and quickly sought refuge with his father and his family on the side of those opposing it.”
On the other hand, there is much in these entries that a medieval compiler would be surprised to discover. The book is populated not with the virtuous and famous, but with the ordinary people that live in the slum apartments and fancy villas of Cairo. From the invasion of Napoleon to the present day, Mahfouz’s characters attempt to survive in a world that is startlingly indifferent to their struggles.
Indeed, the tragedies that occur (the loss of a child, a doomed love) can seem almost commonplace when rendered in the matter-of-fact tone that the dictionary style demands. A woman might be celebrating her marriage in one sentence and dying of a surgery gone wrong in the next. The universe is impartial, this structure suggests, and we are only walk-on parts. That packs an emotional punch in-of-itself.
Not that this is a novel devoid of authorial sentiment, for it lurks between the lines, especially in the biographies of women. Dependent, independent, alluring, rebellious, gossipy, intelligent, chosen for marriage and choosing marriage, they are given equal and impassionate space. But as they often outlive their spouses and male siblings – “she was pensioned off and took shelter in the darkest loneliness” – there is more opportunity for reflection on the vagaries of existence. The inclusion of women’s lives, alien to previous histories, signals a shift to a modern point of view, as does the coverage of the seemingly inconsequential (some are born, live, die, and are buried without fanfare). There are few “dramatic” episodes – a long-running family feud is a thick vein through the entries – but this is perhaps the point. History is formed through accretion, not eruptions.
For Mahfouz, this means national history as well as personal history. How have military and political events, he asks, shaped his collection of personalities and how have they, in return, contributed to the messy evolutionary process of Egypt? This is not the main tune of the book, but rather an insistent backbeat. The British occupation, the abolition of the monarchy, the Suez crisis, the wars with Israel may affect some characters, but often it is dealt with in a cursory way. The idea of Egypt and what it means to be Egyptian emerges, in the end, as a mishmash of conflicting views.
It is a wily writer’s trick, this, to appropriate an old form to toss around contemporary musings on life and identity. Whereas medieval historians used their dictionaries to cement worthy figures into the building of a unified Arab history, Mahfouz uses his characters to show how modern events are gradually pulling those traditions apart. Younger generations in the book marry non-Egyptians and take jobs in foreign countries. The old die off, their histories buried under their children’s.
Viewed as a whole, then, this is a difficult book to sweep up into an easy summation. There are moments of great tedium and plodding prose in it, but one could argue that this is a conscious move, a direct echoing of the source. There are also flashes of brilliant color amidst the beige of description – conversational snippets, pathos (“their hearts still beat with love and solitude”) and unique characters. But does all of this make it a good novel, whatever that means?
Exeunt Mahfouz (who died in 2006), leaving us to sort out this puzzle for ourselves. Like an acrostic, you could spend hours piecing the characters together into their appropriate historical eras and constructing their family trees, to see if this provides illumination. Or you could flip back and forth, cross-referencing illusions. But I think I prefer it from first to finish. Approached in this fashion – the banal and brilliant, birth and death, history and politics tossed together higgledy-piggledy – it reads, ironically, just like life.