"Alexandria. At last. Alexandria, Lady of the Dew. Bloom of white nimbus. Bosom of radiance, wet with sky water. Core of nostalgia steeped in honey and tears.
The massive old building confronts me once again. How could I fail to recognize it? I have always known it. And yet it regards me as if we had shared no past. Walls paintless from the damp, it commands and dominates the tongue of land, planted with palms and leafy acacias, that protrudes out into the Mediterranean to a point where in season you can hear shotguns cracking incessantly.
My poor stooped body cannot stand up to the potent young breeze out here. Not anymore.
Mariana, my dear Mariana, let us hope you're still where we could always find you. You must be. There's not much time left; the world is changing fast and my weak eyes under their thinning white brows can no longer comprehend what they see.
Alexandria, I am here."
(Miramar, pp. 1-2)
I've been wanting to read Naguib Mahfouz's 1956-57 Cairo Trilogy for quite some time. However, having already been burned by Nobel Prize-winning melodrama in Sigrid Undset's utterly exasperating Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, I must admit that I've been a little leery of the blurbs on the back of Mahfouz's books describing his penchant for combining "deep emotions" with "soap opera." The 1967 Miramar, a much shorter novel at only 181 pages, thus became my introduction to the author. Man, what a complete delight! Four narrators (all from different walks of Egyptian life) take a revolving door approach to the storytelling here, describing the various paths that led each to a fateful stay as a boarder at the Miramar pension in Alexandria. While much of the drama hinges on the younger boarders' pursuit of a beautiful cleaning lady named Zohra and the death--apparently by foul play--of one of the characters that ensues, Mahfouz uses the pretext of these intersecting lives as a launch pad to touch on the successes and failures of the Egyptian revolution and to specifically question the nature of male/female and city/country relations in the era (it's probably no accident that while the owner of the Miramar and Zohra are both female, it's the males alone who have the "speaking roles"). In any event, I loved the way the novel tackles such weighty issues in such casual, seemingly conversational tones. Also loved the way that the octogenarian Amer Wagdi's poetic embrace of the city of Alexandria (see his apostrophe above) blends an old man's nostalgia with an awareness of the reality of changing times. Don't know if all of Mahfouz manages to combine this blend of local flavor, intense historico-political introspection, and man of the street poetry/lyricism, but I'm now more eager than ever to immerse myself in the 1,500 page world of the Cairo Trilogy, soap opera or not!