Mahfouz & me"... most people don't like reading about, much less identifying with, mediocre people who evade the truth until it rolls over them," writes biographer Blake Baley, to explain the lack of success of novelist Richard Yates. (A Tragic Honesty. Picador, 2003) This is clearly not a problem for A. K. Rowling, whose wizard is anything but mediocre. But since I'm no longer 13, and my peer group is a little different, I haven't yet sought out the latest Harry Potter book. Instead, my peer group, an on-line readers circle coordinated by Lale Eskioglu, is reading Svevo and Mahfouz.
June's reading was supposed to be Naguib Mahfouz's The Beggar. I haven't located it yet (it was out from my local branch of the New York Public Library), so I picked out another of his books to tell you about.
The Day the Leader Was Killed (Anchor Books, 2000; originally published in Arabic, 1985) takes place in Cairo not on a single day, but over an unspecified span of weeks culminating October 6, 1981. On that day a young low-level government clerk named Elwan Fawwaz Muhtashim explodes in rage at the bourgeois frustrations of his bourgeois love aspirations, and commits a folly that redeems his honor but will certainly destroy his career. On that day also, the symbol and partical cause of the frustrations of the urban middle class, President Anwar al-Sadat, is assassinated.
This is a slight book of limited ambition, a piece -- barely more than a chapter -- in Mahfouz's life-time oeuvre of huge ambition, to retell the whole modern Arab experience. He tells the story in alternate chapters from three first-person points of view: Elwan; his grandfather -- as old as the century, a retired school teacher who remembers his youthful participation in the 1919 "National Movement" and who sees Elwan's dilemma in that long historical perspective; and Randa, Elwan's long-time girlfriend and fiancée, who works in the same government office. She loses much of her respect but none of her affection for Elwan when, bowing to economic and parental pressure, he declares their engagement to be at an end.
It's slight, but masterful. I'm intrigued by the technique. I've done something similar -- a story from multiple points of view -- but not in first person. That approach poses different challenges (no author's voice to set the scene), while enhancing the subjectivity (each voice is unreliable in its own peculiar way). I may try that aproach soon. If you look at my collection Welcome to My Contri, you'll see that I've deliberately tried out different narrative devices (1st person, one narrator; 3rd person limited; 3rd person omniscient; dialogue; a story perceived by someone who understands everything but words, etc.). There are still new things to try.
Check out Lale Eskioglu's website.