“Our plague is forgetfulness.”
To think that an attempt was made on Naguib Mahfouz’s life for writing this book is beyond ridiculous. It shows that those who want to shut up books aren’t really bothered with actual offensive material but react to perceptions of insult to their ideology in a world in which they are becoming increasingly outdated and irrelevant, hence all this mindless sensitiveness.
As to the novel itself, I had a hard time with its two-dimensional characterisations and insufficient conflict. We have a brutal world headed by Gebelaawi, the timeless arch-ancestor of the human settlement who fathered and brought into world various tribes, and who lives in seclusion in the grand house shielded by everyone and everything, ruling his estate – the world – in absentia. God in other words, or the Abrahamic idea of it.
The story revolves around the struggle between his succeeding generations modeled on various Biblio-Quranic figures such as Abel and Cain, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, who were chosen to be sent to their tribes when the human condition became intolerably dark. Mahfouz leaves us in ambiguity as to whether the prophets were actually chosen by Gebelaawi or whether they came to believe in their station by some extraordinary natural agency that set them apart from the sheeple.
The same story repeats itself like a broken record. Every reform movement descends into the chaos as soon as the leader of the tribe turns his back on the temporary abode that is the world. It is as though Mahfouz is saying that nothing ever changes; things do not get better for ever; evil overpowers good at the first opportunity. One prophet comes, fixes things, gives people a simulacrum of justice and happiness, only for them to go back to fighting, killing, pillaging, and the oppression and injustice that comes with the abuse of power. Might the implied failure of various leaders have caused offence to the deranged extremists living in a perfect golden age of their imagination? Who knows eh.
I mentioned its lack of subtlety above, but I’m tempted to see the narrative voice as imitating the Quranic storytelling told in dry, exhortative, repetitive, fear-inducing tones for maximum effect. The good and evil are portrayed in absolute terms even though the prophets are brought down from their infallible station in myth to the level of humanity with their personal flaws. We do have room to see it as ironical. This is a promising idea for a story superimposed on the historico-mythical figures, only if Mahfouz had handled it with more tact. But there’s no mistaking what he’s getting at:
I myself have seen this wretched state of affairs in our own day – a faithful reflection of what people tell us about the past. As for the bards, they tell only of the heroic times, avoiding anything that could offend the powerful, singing praises…and celebrating a justice we never enjoy, a mercy we never find, a nobility we never meet with, a restraint we never see and a fairness we never hear of.
First published in Arabic 1959
Reviewed February 2016