viernes, 4 de junio de 2010


Miramar (Anchor Books, 1993)
by Naguib Mahfouz [translated from the Arabic by Fatma Moussa Mahmoud]
Egypt, 1967

"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!

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006)

Word Portraits
"Amer Wagdi rambles on about the glory of his own past, deeds for which his own conscience must serve, alas, as the only witness; the old wreck wants to convince us that he was formerly a hero.  So no one is commonplace in this damned world.  And everyone sings the praises of the Revolution.  Even Tolba Marzuq.  So do I.  Take care, I say to myself.  Sarhan is an opportunist and Mansour is probably an informer.  Even the ancient scribbler...who knows?  Madame herself is probably required to keep her eyes open in the service of security."  (Hosny Allam speaking, 62-63)

"At breakfast I was introduced to the other guests.  What a weird assortment!  But I needed a pastime, and if I could get the better of my introversion, I thought, I could find some companionship here.  Why not?  But let's not even think about Amer Wagdi and Tolba Marzuq; they belong to a dying generation.  Then, I wondered, what about Sarhan or Hosny?  In Sarhan's eyes there was a native compatibility.  He seemed sympathetic, in spite of his awful voice.  But what were his interests?  By contrast, Hosny simply got on my nerves--that was at least my first impression of him.  He was arrogantly taciturn and reserved and I didn't like his massive build, his big haughty head, or the way he sat enthroned, sprawling in his chair like a lord, but a lord without any real sovereignty or substance.  I presumed he'd feel at conversational ease only with someone he knew to be even more stupid and trifling than himself.  He who deserts his monastery, I reminded myself, must be content with the company of the profane.  And as usual my introversion got the better of me.  They will say...  They will think..."  (Mansour Bahy speaking, 92-93)

"At breakfast I am introduced to two strange old men.  One of them, Amer Wagdi, is so old he's an actual mummy, but he's a merry old fellow.  They say he's an ex-journalist.  The other is Tolba Marzuq, whose name sounds vaguely familiar.  He's under sequestration.  I don't know what brings him to the pension, but I'm keenly interested in him from the start; anything out of the ordinary is interesting, a criminal, a madman, someone under a sentence or under sequestration.  He keeps his eyes on his cup, avoiding my looks.  Out of caution, I wonder, or pride?  I stare at him with mixed feelings, a sense of triumph over his class mixed with pity for his individual plight.  But I'm strangely alarmed at the thought of the state confiscating property.  After all, it could happen to anyone."  (Sarhan al-Beheiry speaking, 139-140)

16 comentarios:

  1. I love this: "He who deserts his monastery, I reminded myself, must be content with the company of the profane." Could one say then that misanthropes use their homes as their monasteries? I think that's a wonderful way of looking at it. But I must say, Oprah - may I call you that? - that I am not quite up for 1500 pages myself, although I look forward to reading your posts. After all, just last weekend I tackled 760 pages of The Passage, which is full of vampire-zombie-bat-thingies (and is proving to be wildly popular in its debut week), and really that is quite enough length for me for now. But I will admit there was nothing therein like the line "Core of nostalgia steeped in honey and tears" (on account of everything being steeped in blood and guts). Very nice excerpts indeed.

  2. This is another one of those books that I read ages ago but didn't get anything out of, I think only because I didn't really know how to read back then. Your review encourages me to give Miramar another try (someday...).

  3. Kristin has left us all so wary, but glad to see this worked so well for you, Oprah. (giggle - Love when Jill feels playful!) I have also been wanting to read The Cairo Trilogy for some time so thanks for the author test drive. But when will I get to those 1,500 pages? When are you reading?

  4. Years ago, in college or soon after, I read three of Naguib Mahfouz's works that were bound in one volume: "Midaq Alley", "The Thief and the Dogs", and "Miramar". It was such a long time ago that I don't remember anything of the stories. But, I must have been impressed enough with Mahfouz, because I still own this volume to this day!

    You are making me think I need to re-read him soon!

  5. *Jill: I liked the irony of the misanthrope/monastery pairing myself, my vampire-zombie-bat-thingies-loving friend. And you may indeed call me Oprah just as long as you help me answer my next reader complaint from a blogger wounded by Oprah and/or unicorn jokes and the like. :)

    *Isabella: I thought Miramar had a lot going on for a short and in some ways breezy kind of read. However, I love the idea that people can become better readers over time. I've reread a couple of old favorites in the last year or two, and I'm quite sure I got more out of them now than I did "back when" (except for the surprise or shock factor).

    Frances: Oprah isn't anywhere near as cool a nickname as the Book Temptress, so don't let that wisenheimer Jill go puttin' any ideas in your head! As far as more Mahmouz goes, I'm debating whether to read a book of Cairo every other month starting in July or August or reading the three books in succession Oct-Nov-Dec (hint: am open to suggestions). If Miramar is any indication, though, I'm fairly sure you'll dig the guy's writing!

    *Valerie: I don't think I've ever seen that collection you mention, but I hope you and I both have lots more Mahfouz in our futures! In the meantime, I'm way impressed that both you and Isabella read Miramar before--for some reason, I was under the impression that Children of the Alley and Midaq Alley were Mahfouz' big hits other than the Cairo Trilogy. Anyway, thanks for dropping by!

  6. True. You deserve a better, cooler nickname. Could not resist though. Have the impulse control of a child.

    Would love to read later in the year. Oct-Nov-Dec thing sounds good. I am going to host a Madame Bovary thing in October too. But if I know we are doing this too I will prep a little in advance.

  7. *Frances: I'm looking forward to reading Madame Bovary with your group, so feel free to let me know if Nov-Dec-Jan works better for Cairo Trilogy for you. Glad to have the lovely company with either schedule, though!

  8. Ooo, this reminds me that I have a copy of The Thief and the Dog lying around somewhere. Must read it! :)

  9. Nov-Dec-Jan would be best for me. Thank you oh charming and accommodating host!

  10. I would be more likely to do the Cairo Trilogy readalong if we started in November - am definitely doing Madame Bovary & really trying to leave room throughout the year for spontaneous reads. So I hope we do it later, 'cause I'd really like to participate with y'all!

    Re: Miramar, this sounds lovely, Richard. I especially loved the sharp yet conversational quality of the three passages you quote at the end.

  11. *Sarah: Yes, please read that one soon and let us all know what you think about it (Valerie has me curious)!

    *Frances: Nov-Dec-Jan it is then! Very excited, my friend. :)

    *Emily: We're now on for Nov-Dec-Jan, so that's awesome that you might be able to join us! In related news that might serve as an incentive, I saw that the onmibus edition of the Cairo Trilogy is "only" 1,360 pages long rather than the 1,500 page figure I've been bandying about. Glad you liked the Miramar quotes--I was a little worried about how long they made the post, but I wanted to give a feel for the style and substance of Mahfouz's writing for anybody who cared for a sample.

  12. Deep emotions and soap opera . . . I'd be leery of this one too, except I love the Mahfouz excerpts you posted. Would be interested in doing a Cairo trilogy read-along too, maybe a bit more in the future - late summer or early fall.

  13. I feel so old (I'm 38) when I think about writing that I read the Cairo Trilogy back in 1997 or thereabouts. Glad you guys will be reading it. I did the opposite of what you did, reading his short work first and then the longer one. I started with the Trilogy, but it ruined the shorter books for me. Just wasn't the same. I remember not wanting to start Sugar Street, the last volume, because I couldn't stand the idea of it ending. I mostly loved the family and reading about life in Cairo. Beautiful, but gloomy story, and one of my favorites. If you hate it, I'll try not so send you a nasty email ;).

  14. No articulate thought from me here, just glad that you were able to link to my new home. I'll be back later with something more philosophical. ;)

  15. *E.L. Fay: I'm not sure what the NY Times book reviewer had in mind with that deep emotions-and-soap opera quip nor why the publisher thought that would be a great enticement for someone to buy the book. Almost cost them a sale! The readalong's on for Nov-Dec-Jan (sort of like very late summer or early fall, ha!), and it'd be cool if you could join.

    *Lourdes: You have me even more excited than ever about the Cairo Trilogy if that's possible, but, um, no need to feel old around me if you catch my drift (I prob. seem younger than I am because of my immaturity!). What you described here sounds pretty great, so I'm not sure I'd be able to provoke any new Tender Morsels-style outrage with my Mahfouz posts even if I wanted to!

    *Bellezza: No worries--the new link started working about 5 minutes after I told you about the technical glitches. Murphy's Law in reverse for a change!

  16. Yo, Oprah, I might join for Cairo Trilogy, too, in Nov. Too funny how Kristin never leaves us. It seems like every other post we have to do must mention her.