Najib Mahfuz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo
by Menahem Milson
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. 304 pp. $49.95.
Reviewed by Joseph Zeidan
Ohio State University
Middle East Quarterly
Equipped with a profound knowledge of philology and Sufism, coupled with fine artistic appreciation, Milson sets out to explore the world of the famed Egyptian novelist (whose name is usually spelled Naguib Mahfouz). He sheds light particularly on terra incognita by placing the Mahfouz corpus within the framework of Egyptian culture and not trying to make him the Arabs' Dickens, Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky. By systematically studying the linguistic and literary sources of Mahfouz, with a focus on his earliest efforts, ones overlooked by other scholars, Milson reveals some typical Mahfouz tendencies (such as his hostility toward his father). He also reveals Mahfouz's political concerns during the Nasser and Sadat periods, some expressed explicitly, many others allegorically.
Indeed, Milson reveals the depth of Mahfouz's predilection for allegory in his use of names (made easy by the fact that most Arabic names mean something). In his impressive decoding of the names in the fictional writings of Mahfouz, he demonstrates the richness that this technique brings to the fabric of the narrative, providing them with additional dimensions and, in some cases, loading them with hidden messages. In several stories, for example, Egypt is represented by young women with names whose qualities exhibit "charm, endurance, hope, and fortitude in adversity"; in contrast, the male characters, with their negative names, represent the corrupt regime.
For more than sixty years, Mahfouz has striven to combine the personal and the collective, believing in the ability of an intellectual to transform reality even in a basically non-democratic environment, an ambition made easier by his winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988. Even in his directly expressed political views, such as his unwavering support for the Camp David accords, Mahfouz's concern is primarily the well-being of his country. Milson demonstrates that Mahfouz, whether writing about the ancient history of Egypt or exploring the psyche of the individual, is the Egyptian writer par excellence.
Related Topics: Egypt | September 1999 MEQ
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