Book Quote:

“He let his contempt be known from the first day. He wondered how people distinguished by nothing but their possession of weapons could usurp government. Did it mean then that brigands could become kings? What had happened to noble families? How could the rank of pasha be eliminated with the stroke of a pen?…The world had truly turned upside down—the bottom now at the top, the top now at the bottom. Fires of jealousy and rancor raged in his heart. He glowered angrily at the new world glowering at him.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Mary Whipple (AUG 07, 2009)

Written in 1987, this last entry in the Cairo series by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz is not a novel in the traditional sense. The book has no beginning, middle, and end, and no real plot. There is no standard chronology or strong characters who develop fully during the action. In a bold experiment, Mahfouz uses the traditional Arab biographical dictionary as his structural model for the book. These dictionaries came into use in the ninth century, recording the lives of influential people from all walks of life in single-paragraph entries.

Creating sixty-seven individual biographies, Mahfouz arranges them according to the Arab alphabetical order of the characters’ first names, each entry being a personal anecdote which adds life to the book and resembles a short story. Incorporating the history of three Cairo families from the Napoleonic Wars through the assassination of Anwar Sadat, Mahfouz recreates Cairo life and culture in an impressionistic collage which, because it is dependent on the alphabetical order of the characters, jumbles the chronology and the generations of families.

The book begins with the death of a child, who was the best friend of his uncle, only a year and a half older, an episode which is recalled again near the end of the book, and as the child’s family is recreated, in random order by alphabet, the novel grows like ripples from a stone thrown into a pond, incorporating different eras and other families over four or five generations. Most of the characters belong to well-off families in Cairo, but the inheritance laws and marriage laws do not benefit women and widows and often leave a family destitute upon the death of the male family leader. This creates a panorama of characters of different economic and educational levels, and different levels of professional success, though they may be within the same generation of the same family.

Since Mahfouz is also incorporating one hundred fifty years of Egyptian history, he is also able to bring history to life by showing how the important influences on Egyptian history affect particular members of these families. Beginning (non-chronologically) with the entrance of Napoleon into Cairo in 1798, Mahfouz shows the progression of political change: the British Occupation from 1882 – 1952; the 1919 Revolution against the British occupation; the Free Officer’s movement, founded by Gamal Abdel Nasser, leading to the July Revolution of 1952; the Tripartite Aggression (the Suez Crisis) of 1956, in which Britain, France, and Israel attacked Egypt for nationalizing the Suez canal; the Six Day War of 1967, in which Israel attacked Egypt; the War of Attrition from 1967 – 70 between Egypt and Israel; and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, in which Egypt and Syria attempted to recapture land lost to Israel in the Six Day War.

As much as the book may be about political change, however, it is at least, if not more, about marriage and its importance in the culture. Throughout these generations, members of the same family intermarry, usually at the level of cousins, to protect inheritance and wealth, but other marriages are also arranged among other “appropriate” families. Some of these marriages are happy, and others are not. Some lead to divorce, while others lead to the taking of additional wives by some of the husbands. Despite the different educational levels between the men and the women, the women are all educated at least at the level of literacy, and as time moves toward the present, the wives are often educated professionals—lawyers or physicians—who may move easily between Egyptian and European cultures.

Though most of the families remain in Cairo, a few of the individual members move to other parts of the world. Some leave for Germany, the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia. Some of the women marry men from Pakistan and Syria. Still, they return often to Cairo, despite their absences for significant periods of time. Among the families in this novel, the religious commitments are casual, not devout, and while some of the characters may be passionately committed to some of the political movements of the day (and others may oppose them just as passionately), none of them are religious extremists.

Readers new to Mahfouz will probably want to start elsewhere for their introduction, perhaps with the Cairo Trilogy or even Akhenaten, written just two years before this novel, both of which are more traditional in chronology and development. An experiment which stretches the bounds of the novel, Morning and Evening Talk was written when Mahfouz was an old man reflecting on history and the meaning of being an Egyptian. The book can be tedious and sometimes frustrating, with characters having similar names making it difficult to remember who is who, and with sixty-seven biographies, some characters also resemble other characters and do not add significant new information to the novel. Still, like an impressionistic or pointillist painting, the individual biographies are colorful and fascinating, and taken together they give a picture of a broad cross section of Egyptian society dealing, over time, with the winds of change.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 1 readers
PUBLISHER: Anchor; Reprint edition (March 10, 2009)
REVIEWER: Mary Whipple
AMAZON PAGE: Morning and Evening Talk
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Naguib Mahfouz
EXTRAS: Excerpt

Complete review on Morning and Evening Talk

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read a review of Karnak Cafe

Read a review of Cairo Modern

More set in  Egypt:

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

The Ptolemies by Duncan Sprott

Another interesting narrative approach:

A Dictionary of Magiao by Han Shaogong


August 7, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Egypt, Literary, Nobel Prize for Literature, Translated, Unique Narrative, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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