September 22, 2006

Mahfouz The Search

Naghuib Mahfouz was one of the greatest Egyptian novelists around- but like many other middle Eastern novelists, like Orhan Pamuk for example, what he writes has more than a regional importance. To take for example his novel the Search, elements of the plot remind a western reader of the Postman rings twice (the James Cain novel later made into two Hollywood films) but is actually more complicated. Mahfouz's novel is narrated by the drifter himself, in the manner of a film noir, but Mahfouz's narrator is more subjective even than that. His narration is exceptionally atmospheric- dwelling on the circumstantial details of existance especially the disorientating feeling of being alone which seizes any traveller on their own in a new city- his most powerful technique in doing this is that he switches very often from the third person to the second, instructing the reader to use empathy. This disorientation makes the extremity of the characters more beleivable- the frenzy of their existance is conveyed in part by the concentrated solitude of the main character.

What is Mahfouz communicating though in this intense and atmospheric story of 1950s Cairo? Many people before this have discerned a thread of concern about post revolutionary Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, rightly they have seen the same anxieties about city life as emerged elsewhere swaying through Mahfouz's cities. The traditional authorities whether Sheikhs or proffessionals seem uncaring and useless. The power of the call of the Muezzin fades into the atmosphere of the city rather than being an integral part of life. More crucially though to Mahfouz's story and perhaps an interesting point for this blog is the universal message that it contains about industriousness.

Mahfouz's central character Saber suffers from a common delusion- he wishes merely to stretch out his hand and reach for the goods available within life. Saber has the choice of two women in his life- one Karima who he uses for instant sexual gratification, the other Elham who he loves sincerely. His choice of women mirrors the choice of career he faces- an easy amount of money obtained by a crime and a difficult struggle to work hard through the world. The choice he and Karima take guides them to their dooms- Mahfouz holds up the other woman Elham who has a Sonya-like presence in the narrative, an angelic influence if you like, as an example of the way that work can set people on the way to security and to love. This theme, which is not merely Mahfouz but echoes through American and European literature is strengthened by the intensity of the atmosphere. What Mahfouz depicts though is a cosmopolitian world of abandoning striving for strife.

In a sense as well the last sense in which Mahfouz's protagonist is typical is in the way that he is really searching for meaning in a world without it. If he stands in the tradition of James Cain, he also stands in the tradition of Dosteovsky. Saber has no particular ideology, when asked whether he is for East or West he replies that he is for war. Despite an obvious liking for luxury, the only desires that Saber expresses are sexual. His search for a father is a search in a way for purpose- a purpose that Elham offers him- but unlike in Crime and Punishment there is no happy ending- Raskolnikov in this case sees the opportunity only when its too late and his search for his father finishes at the moment he is to be hung which is also the moment he realises he should have taken Elham's offers not Karima's.