Nagib Mahfouz’s comparably brief novel, Miramar, captures a moment of great change in the history of Egypt through the lives of the inhabitants of a the pension Miramar. Although politics are ever present in the background, the novel focuses on the way the lives of the inhabitants of the pension have been changed by the Nasarite revolution of the late 50s. Mahfouz, the great story teller he his, uses the personal disappointments brought on by the revolution to draw a picture of a country trying to radically change, yet tied to the past and unable to change many of its ways despite official policies. His subtle focus on the relationships between the characters of the pension, drawing out the conflicts between the shifting class of people, lifts the book above politics and draws a fascinating picture of classes rising and falling.
Miramar is divided into four chapters, each told by a different resident of the pension. Amir Wagdi, the first to narrate, is a retired journalist who provides a historical memory to the story. He had seen the uprising against the British in the twenties and later the revolution. A long time friend of the proprietor of the pension, Mariana, he has returned an old man, content to live in his memories and accept what his life has given him. He has a sage like quality that in conversation with his contemporary the Pasha, a rich man now disposed of most of his lands, he is able to avoid arguments about politics. Much of his chapter has a dream like feel of the lost, and his interactions with the Pasha and Mariana recall the days when he was amongst the action, before their respective lives and the movements they belonged to failed and faded into the past.
When a young peasant girl, Zorha, comes to work at the pension, everything changes for the boarders. For Amir Wagdi, he takes on the role of a grandfather, hoping for her to succeed as she attempts leave the country side and survive in a world where everyone wants to take her independence. Zorha is a defiant woman who had left the village when her family wanted her to marry someone she didn’t want to marry. Surrounded by men in the pension, she stands up to them and though shy she, she is strong enough to fight back against all the things that befall her. She is one of the few characters in the book that really is looking towards the future and doing it on her own terms. She is illiterate, but hires a teacher to learn to read even though most people tell her it is a waste of time. She is also one of the few, perhaps the only, who is good hearted. One read could see Zorha as the future of the new Egypt, but Mahfouz is too clear eyed for that simplicity, because all the young who live in the pension either want the old society, or are just looking for ways to exploit the new corruption that has replaced the old corruption. Nor is the country side a bastion of wisdom. If it were, Zorha wouldn’t have needed to leave the country side. Instead, Mahfouz celebrates an individuality that is strong and not tempted by the faults of society.
The other men, Husni Allam, a rich playboy, Mansour Bahi, an indecisive radio host, and Sarhan al-Behairi, a low ranking party man whose is looking to make money on the black market, have only one interest: what they can get for themselves. They are consumed by lust, which varies in cruelty, but is all consuming and is an attempt themselves in a position of power, using women without care. The hustling nature puts them in conflict with each other, especially as they fight for Zorha’s affections. Ultimately, the mix of hustling, sexual tension and the close confinement leads to the murder of Sarhan al-Behairi, who is found on a street one morning. As each of the three men narrate their section, the events that lead up to al-Behairi’s death become clearer. It is obvious that none of these men are particularly praiseworthy. Yet even in a character such as Husni Allam, Mahfouz creates evocative characters that also express the frustrations of men who, in many ways, don’t have many options. On the one hand, the rich are loosing their lands, and on the other those are part of the new regime can’t get ahead either. The frustrations add complexity to what might have otherwise been a simple tale of lust and envey.
Ultimately, it is not important if al-Behairi’s murderer is found, what is important is Mahfouz’s picture of post revolution Egypt. The conflicting interests and impulses he presents avoids the pessimistic, yet there is an air of fatalism in the characters who cannot get beyond their pasts. Only Zorha offers hope, but it is unclear what that it is. It is not for Mahfouz to describe the future. Still, one hopes Zorha will survive, for it suggests there is a future worth having.