Sons of Mahfouz – An Egyptian Novelist After Mahfouz

Al Ahram weekly (via Literary Salon) has a good article about the youngish (b. 1967) Novelist Ibrahim Farghali and the evolution of post Mahfouz writing. I’m not sure if I agree with the author of the article’s implicit idea that after realism comes magical realism:

[…] Yet from a history-of-literature point of view, Abnaa Al-Gabalwi is probably the closest we have come to a fulfilment of the prophecy that a home-grown magic realist movement would emerge in the new millennium.

Such books would combine the realism and social commitment of the Sixties narrative tradition with the individualism and physicality of the Nineties (the latter thus far accommodated mainly by the prose poem). It would give substance to the notion of an “age of the novel”, espoused by critic Gabir Asfour at millennium’s end, and express a range of recent influences from Gabriel-Garcia Marquez and Jorge-Luis Borges to Umberto Eco to Jose Saramago — all of whom demonstrated how elements of the fantastical could be deployed to intensify reality and/or infuse the public realm with private experience.

That said, I think the book has some promise and certainly sounds interesting if it ever makes it into English, which it may not because it sounds very writerly.

This, basically, is the premise of Abnaa Al-Gabalwi, which nonetheless incorporates numerous other frameworks, notably the appearance of flesh-and-blood reincarnations of some of Mahfouz’s characters both in and outside their original settings, the government’s efforts to do what it can to have the books back — some people apparently know the texts by heart, others attempt to reconstruct them with the help of their knowledge of Mahfouz’s work from translations — and the very complex, gradual intermingling of the fictional world and the world to which it supposedly refers. There are not only characters but narrators, character narrators, doubles, triples, even quadruples. Subplots take on lives of their own, and there are multiple scenarios with a range of possible resolutions.

The fictional acrobatics are of such intensity they frequently if no doubt intentionally disrupt what suspension of disbelief the reader has managed to maintain, but they also undermine the book’s popular appeal and seem to have no purpose beyond themselves.

“The fictional acrobatics are an end in themselves” Farghali insists, “not a means to something else. You could put it down to taste. I like complexity in a novel. More than one time frame, more than one character, more than one voice. My wish is to alter my voice till it becomes a multiplicity of voices in the manner of the Portuguese writer Fernando PesÓo, although of course there is a huge difference and I am still a student compared to him. I managed that somewhat in previous works, I created parallel time frames, but in general I totally incline towards this kind of layering. I like The God of Small Things, for example, for that same reason.”

As in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter night’s a traveller (which is made up of novel openings), by the time you have turned the last page, you have read not a novel as such but a range of possible novels. More than any one character or story-line, you retain a sense of what an Arabic novel is, or what Farghali thinks it might be. More importantly, perhaps, you appreciate the disappearance of Mahfouz’s work as a metaphor for the general social-political malaise the book selectively and somewhat fitfully depicts: corruption, purposelessness, physical and mental repression, and the existential loss not only of the private but of the public self all come to mind. Mahfouz’s books stand in for Egypt and all it means.

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