Thursday, October 23, 2008

It is hard to feel sympathy for Isa ad-Dabbagh, as it is always hard to feel sympathy over an extended period for anyone who feels relentlessly sorry for themselves. Naguib Mahfouz's AUTUMN QUAIL begins with Egypt's 1952 Revolution. Isa is dismissed from government on corruption charges and arrives home to his mother's questions:
Fortunately she did not know anything. Walking slowly around the house, he thought about how expensive it was. He couldn't possibly keep it now. Two years' salary, even added to what was left in the bank of the umdas' gifts, wouldn't last longer than two years. All those objects decorating the entrance, the reception room, and the library were "gifts" too. Certainly the crooks outnumbered the people who had been dismissed for crookedness. He was guilty, though, and so were his friends: what had happened to the good old days? Gifts were forbidden, after all, a mark of corruption. But this sudden loss of everything, just when he was on the threshold of a senior position, which would have led to the minister's chair! How could you live in a world where people forgot or pretended to forget, where there were so many others who gloated over the whole thing with unfeeling malice, where hard-won honors were being stripped away and vices trundled out and exposed, unfurled like so many flags? (p.60)
And so he goes one: whinge, whinge whinge through page after page. Don't get me started on corrupt and bullying (or worse) officials, South African history is littered with them. I have no time for the oft repeated excuses of "I didn't know" or "It wasn't me." Isa describes it as "...the harsh circumstances which often forced us to do things we didn't like doing" and pointing out that everyone around him did the same.

As his life spirals out of control, mirrored by political events in the country (the nationalization of the Suez Canal; the invasion of Egypt), Isa slouches from gambling table, to drinking den, using up his savings and in the process treating women abominably and generally irritating friends and family who are baffled by his behaviour. He is unable to make decisions about his future because he is so mired in the past and his perceived unjust dismissal (even though he is the first to admit the corruption charges are justified) both from work, but also by his fiancee's family. Just as we begin to lose patience, Mahfouz delivers an understated masterstroke to the plot. It would spoil the book for anyone who might read it (nor, to be honest, am I sure I could adequately describe it) so I won't discuss it here. Let's just say that instead of feeling I'd like to deposit the book at the first charity shop I came to, I now want to read it again. Immediately.

Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 and died in 2006. Hisham Matar recalls attending a soiree with Mahfouz here.

I selected this book for the Africa Reading Challenge.

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