Picks and Pans Review: The Thief and the Dogs Wedding Song the Beginning and the End

by Naguib Mahfouz

A Nobel Prize can work wonders for authors writing in languages less universal than English. For 1988 literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz—the septuagenarian “Balzac of Egypt”—the recognition has led to translations of these three titles from the author’s Arabic, with another 11 to come. Often considered the conscience of Egypt, Mahfouz is known for novels that probe his country’s disparate assortment of political and social problems. Because the allegorical Children of Gebelawi (1959) humanized Mohammed, it remains banned in Egypt. Similarly, earlier this year Mahfouz received death threats from Moslem fundamentalists because of the alleged blasphemy in his works. He’s also on record as criticizing the death sentence against author Salman Rushdie. This is the man whose work the Nobel committee called both “clearsightedly realistic” and “evocatively ambiguous,” but what they perhaps thought didn’t need saying is that the man can tell a story. Like Dickens, he sets his work against the searing backdrop of a city in crisis (in this instance Cairo), imbuing it with a dank, palpable existence. Like Dostoyevski, he intrigues by exposing his characters’ psyches. For example, The Thief and the Dogs, (1961) is a fascinating psychological portrait of a released prisoner bent on vengeance. Throughout this novel, Mahfouz relies heavily on symbolism and stylized stream-of-consciousness passages to reveal the thief’s thoughts and anxieties. The construction of Wedding Song (1981) is technically similar to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: A single situation is recounted from the perspective of each of the participants. In Mahfouz’s novel, a perceived romantic betrayal occurs in a theater group. Death and accusation follow. Eventually, the ugly episode is turned into a wildly successful play, “more true than the real facts.” The Beginning and the End (1949) is set during WWII and shows the misfortunes of a large middle-class family facing poverty after the unexpected death of its major breadwinner. Through the family’s circumstances, Mahfouz turns a tragic eye on Egyptian life. In each of these novels he explores a society preoccupied with a rigid morality and characters as absorbed by social conventions as they are by notions of destiny and truth. (Double-day, $16.95, $16.95 and $19.95; paper, $7.95, $7.95 and $8.95)

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