The Cruelty of Memory



https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2000/11/30/the-cruelty-of-memory/



GREAT writers often seem to haunt their cities. Joyce and Kafka remain ghostly figures on the streets of Dublin and Prague, and the elfin presence of Borges is still glimpsed, through cigarette smoke and tango sweat, in the cafes of Buenos Aires. In the ancient city of Cairo, it is Naguib Mahfouz who does the haunting.
Mục Sách & Nghệ Thuật của tờ Người Kinh Tế theo Gấu, thật tuyệt. Gấu 'đăng ký dài hạn', chỉ để đọc có mục này.
Mấy câu mở ra bài ai điếu nhà văn Ai Cập đầu tiên được Nobel mà chẳng tuyệt sao?

Nhà văn lớn thường ám ảnh những thành phố của họ. Joyce và Kafka sau cùng trở thành những bóng ma trên đường phố Dublin và Prague. Bóng dáng, khói thuốc lá, mùi mồ hôi sau một điệu tăng gô đã đời của Borges vẫn còn sặc sụa trong những tiệm cà phê ở Buenos Aires.
Trong thành phố cổ Cairo, bây giờ tới lượt bóng ma của Naguib Mahfouz ngự trị.
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Lần thứ nhì bỏ chạy quê hương, cùng nỗi nhớ Sài-gòn là sự thật đắng cay mà tuổi già càng làm thêm cay đắng: Một giấc mộng, dù lớn lao dù lý tưởng cỡ nào, cũng không làm sống lại, chỉ một sợi nắng Sài-gòn: Trong những đêm chập chờn mất ngủ, hồn thiêng của thành phố thức giấc ở trong tôi, tôi tưởng hồn ma của chính mình đang lang thang trên những nẻo đường xưa cũ, sống lại cái phần đời đã chết theo cùng với Sài Gòn, bởi cái phần đời đó mới đáng kể. Tôi đọc lại Nabokov và lần ra sợi dây máu mủ, ruột thịt giữa tác giả-nhà văn lưu vong-con vật đáng thương-nàng nymphette tinh quái. Đọc Koestler để hiểu rằng, tuổi trẻ của tôi và của bao lớp trẻ sau này, đều bị trù yểm, bởi một ngày mai có riêng một con quỷ của chính nó: Miền Bắc, Hà-nội.
Một thành phố mà tôi đã chết ở trong, nay sống lại, chỉ để kể về nó…
Lần Cuối Sài Gòn

First Arab Nobel laureate dies, aged 94
Naguib Mahfouz, nhà văn người Ả Rập đầu tiên được giải thưởng Nobel văn chương, vào năm 1988 - những cuốn tiểu thuyết của ông miêu tả cuộc sống Ai Cập, trong một góc thân thương của ông tại thành phố cổ Cairo - đã mất, tại tư gia bữa nay, 30 Tháng Tám, 2006, thọ 94 tuổi.


THE NOVELIST AND THE SHEIKH
by MARY ANNE WEAVER

Vườn Xưa
“Thời gian là nhân vật thực sự của tôi”
Naguib Mahfouz 
Mahfouz, người Ai Cập, sinh năm 1911 ở Cairo, là nhà văn viết bằng tiếng Ả Rập đầu tiên được Nobel văn chương (1988). Tác phẩm bộ ba về thành phố Cairo, Cairo Trilogy, gồm Ngõ cụt Lâu đài (Impasse des Deux Palais, bản tiếng Anh, Palace Walk, nhà xb Anchor, 498 trang), Lâu đài Dục vọng (Le Palais du Désir, Palace of Desire, 422 trang), và Vườn Xưa (Le Jardin du Pasée, bản tiếng Anh, Phố Đường, Sugar Street, 308 trang), dầy 1500 trang, hoàn tất vào năm 1952, là câu chuyện nhiều tập (saga) về một gia đình trưởng giả ở thành phố Cairo từ 1917 đến 1944. Trước đó, ông đã thử tay nghề, và cho xuất bản ba cuốn tiểu thuyết về Ai Cập cổ đại, khi còn là nhân viên tại một bộ lo về tôn giáo (Ministry of Awqaf, Religious Endowments). Ngoài bộ ba kể trên, ông còn là tác giả chừng 40 tiểu thuyết, tập truyện, kịch phẩm. 
Với Tam Khúc Cairo, bạn có thể bắt đầu theo bất cứ một trật tự nào, hoặc đọc cả ba, hoặc đọc chỉ một, điều này cho thấy tài năng của người kể chuyện. Thời gian là nhân vật chính, và cùng với nó, một thành phố, những con người dính cứng vào đời thường, vào cái nhất thời, sự hữu hạn. Và cùng với thời gian, là “tiến hoá”. Bởi vì lịch sử (histoire), như chuyện lớn (la grande histoire), hay chuyện nhỏ (la petite histoire), luôn luôn ở phía sau; nó có đó, gầm gừ, đe dọa: hãy biến cuộc đời của mi thành định mệnh. 
Từ “định mệnh” ở đây, mang âm hưởng Đông phương. Mà sao trong sổ đoạn trường có tên: một thứ nghiệp (une forme d’ensorcelante fatalité), dưới dạng một câu chuyện thần tiên, theo Nicole Chardaire, khi giới thiệu Vườn Xưa, bản tiếng Pháp, loại Sách Bỏ Túi. Bà cho rằng, khác với Ngàn Lẻ Một Đêm, khu vườn quá khứ của Mahfouz không phải vườn thúy của người đẹp Shéhérazade, nhưng được cư ngụ bởi những con người bằng xương bằng thịt, bởi nỗi đau, niềm hy vọng. Vẫn theo Nicole Chardaire, cái nguồn thực sự ở đây, là từ truyền thống văn chương Nga. Từ Tolstoi, Gogol, Dostoievski; gần hơn, từ Balzac, Proust. Gần hơn nữa, Roger Martin du Gard, mà chính tác giả cũng đã thừa nhận là ông có mắc nợ. Nói tóm gọn, đây là một dòng văn chương chơi đùa (jouer) với những ẩn dụ – của con tim, cuộc đời, lịch sử. Một dòng văn chương mà thời gian là nhân vật đích thực của nó. 
Thời gian: Ai Cập từ 1917 tới 1944. “Thời nhân” (nhân chứng thời đại): một cư dân thành phố có tên là Ahmed Abd el-Gawward. Một thương gia có tới hai cái bóng: ban ngày, trong gia đình, ngoài xã hội, đây là một con người ngoan đạo, rất nghiêm với vợ con, chí thú làm ăn. Ban đêm, ông thả lỏng con lợn lòng, chiều theo rượu và gái, lao vào những thú vui “bị cấm đoán”, thả hồn theo những điệu nhạc huê tình… Nhưng rồi giông bão nổi lên, những cô con gái của ông bắt đầu nổi loạn chống lại ông bố khắc nghiệt, những ông con trai bắt đầu mở những cuốn sách khác, không phải kinh Coran…
 Trên tờ Điểm Sách Nữu Ước (The New York Review of Books), số Nov 30, 2000, qua bài viết “Sự Độc Ác của Hồi Ức”, Edward Said đã nhìn lại Tam Khúc về Cairo, đọc mấy cuốn mới ra lò của “The Great Mahfouz”. Theo ông, trước khi được Nobel văn chương, với thế giới bên ngoài, (hay bên ngoài thế giới Ả Rập), Mahfouz chỉ được biết tới như là tác giả của những câu chuyện mang tính minh họa, về cuộc sống hạ lưu ở Cairo. Nhưng ngay cả với những sinh viên về Ả Rập hoặc giới nghiên cứu về Trung Đông, họ vẫn nghĩ, ông không có được một văn phong, hay một viễn tượng cho riêng mình. Lý do một phần là do dịch thuật. Thường là quá dở. Mahfouz lại không kiếm ra nổi một dịch giả mê văn ông tới mức để cả đời vào việc dịch. Vào năm 1980 (nghĩa là vẫn trước khi ông được Nobel), Said đã cố gắng giới thiệu ông với một nhà xuất bản ở New York; ông này đang đưa mắt nhìn về “thế giới thứ ba”, coi có cuốn nào thuộc loại số một, và biến nó thành dịch phẩm hảo hạng. Nhưng sau khi cân nhắc đắn đo, ông lắc đầu. Khi Said hỏi tại sao, ông trả lời, không hề có ý  châm biếm, rằng Ả Rập là một ngôn ngữ dễ gây tranh luận (I was told – with no dectectable irony - that Arabic was a controversial language). Nhưng thú vị là, vài năm sau khi nhà xuất bản New York lắc đầu, Said đã có dịp trao đổi với Người Đẹp Jackie, tức Jacqueline Onassis, và bà là một trong những người đã hỗ trợ ông ta. Bản quyền tiếng Anh thuộc nhà xuất bản Đại Học Mỹ ở Cairo; Mahfouz, chắc gặp lúc quá kẹt, đã bán rẻ chúng; có thể ông chẳng thèm nghĩ đến chuyện một ngày đẹp trời, ông trở thành nổi tiếng trên khắp thế giới.
 Với độc giả Ả Rập, Mahfouz có một giọng văn đặc biệt, của riêng ông, một bậc thầy về ngôn ngữ, nhưng với độc giả tiếng Anh, ông đành ăn theo dịch giả; và Said thú nhận, ông rất lấy làm buồn mà nói rằng, mấy ông đó chỉ đáng là “thợ dịch”, tức là chẳng ai có một văn phong, và có khi chẳng hiểu Mahfouz nói gì nữa! Said qua bài viết đã cố gắng giới thiệu với độc giả tiếng Anh một Mahfouz vĩ đại của ngôn ngữ Ả Rập.
 Giống như một vị hoàng đế, đứng trên bậc cửu trùng ngó xuống thần dân tức vương quốc giả tưởng do mình tạo ra, Mahfouz biết, ông có thể vẫy tay ra hiệu cho nó tới phủ phục dưới chân ông, chịu sự phán xét, nhào nặn, uốn nắn cái hình vóc, dáng dấp của nó, như Alexander, Caesar hay Nã Phá Luân, những người chuyên chinh phục, chiến thắng, mở mang vương quốc của họ. Thêm vào đó, là những ngón nghề văn hoá, trí thức, như là những phương tiện chuyển đạt dũng mãnh, trực tiếp và tinh tế. Những nhân vật của ông luôn luôn được mô tả một cách “trực khởi” ngay khi vừa ló mặt, cũng vậy, Mahfouz tới ngay trước mặt bạn (độc giả), nhấn bạn vào trong cái dòng chẩy là những câu chuyện của ông, một dòng kể dầy, đặc, và bạn cứ thế mà loay hoay bơi lội ở trong đó. Lịch sử Ai Cập dưới thời những vị thủ tướng như  Saad Zaghloul và Mustapha el Nahas, chi tiết về những đảng phái, chuyện nhà này nhà kia… tất cả được diễn tả thật tài tình. Hiện thực chủ nghĩa, lẽ dĩ nhiên, nhưng vượt lên trên là viễn ảnh, là tầm nhìn xa của nhà văn; với Mahfouz, đó còn là một tấm lòng trắc ẩn của một con người có niềm tin vào Thiên chúa giáo. Hiện nay ông nổi tiếng khắp thế giới, hoặc như là một nhà văn hiện thực xã hội theo kiểu Balzac, hoặc như một người kể chuyện huyền hoặc (a fabulist) từ Ngàn Lẻ Một Đêm bước thẳng ra. Nhưng có lẽ đúng nhất, là đề nghị của tiểu thuyết gia người Lebanon, Elias Khoury; ông coi đây là một dạng lịch sử về thể loại tiểu thuyết, từ giả tưởng mang tính lịch sử tới chuyện diễm tình, chuyện nhiều tập, chuyện gươm đàn nửa gánh tiếu ngạo giang hồ, theo sau đó, là một tác phẩm với đủ kiểu: hiện thực, hiện đại, tự nhiên, biểu tượng, và phi lý (a kind of history of the novel form, from historical fiction to the romance, saga, and picaresque tale, followed by work in realist, modernist, naturalist, symbolist, and absurdist modes).
 Hơn nữa, mặc dù bề ngoài dễ đọc, Mahfouz là một thế giá rất phức tạp, rất vi diệu (sophisticated): ông không chỉ là một “tay chơi” ngôn ngữ Ả Rập (an Arabic stylist), mà còn là một sinh viên cần cù theo dõi tiến trình xã hội, và tri thức luận. Said cho rằng, thế giá này là số một, có lẽ độc nhất vô nhị trên thế giới. Những cuốn tiểu thuyết “được gọi là hiện thực xã hội” của ông, từ đó danh vọng ông nổi lên như cồn, không chỉ là một tấm gương phản ánh mang tính xã hội, thuận lý về một Ai Cập hiện đại; chúng còn là những toan tính thật táo bạo vén màn bí mật về cuộc thi thố quyền lực. Bắt phong trần phải phong trần, vì vậy, quyền lực này có thể đến từ ông Trời, như trong ngụ ngôn Awlad Haritna (Những đứa con của Gebelaawi), xuất bản năm 1958 nhưng bị nhà cầm quyền Ai Cập cấm đoán cho tới mấy năm gần đây. Đây là chuyện một đại điền chủ, một thứ ông trời, đã cấm đoán con cái của mình không được vào Thiên Đàng, không được nối ngôi ông, cũng không được tham gia đảng phái chính trị, đại học, nhân viên bàn giấy nhà nước vv…
 Nhưng như vậy không có nghĩa là những tiểu thuyết của Mahfouz được hướng dẫn bởi những nguyên lý trừu tượng, mà ngược hẳn lại, nếu không, chúng đã không gây ấn tượng mạnh mẽ ở những độc giả Ả Rập, thoạt kỳ thuỷ, và bây giờ, là cả thế giới.
 Mục tiêu mà Mahfouz muốn nhắm tới, theo Said: ông muốn những tư tưởng nhập thân hoàn toàn vào những nhân vật, vào những hành động của họ; không một điều gì mang tính lý thuyết bị bỏ qua không được đem ra thi thố. Nhưng điều luôn luôn làm Mahfouz ngỡ ngàng, đó là, Cái Tuyệt Đối – với một người Hồi giáo, đó là Thượng Đế, như là quyền năng tối hậu – bằng cách nào nó bắt buộc trở thành vật chất, và không thể khôi phục lại được (the way the Absolute – which for a Muslim is of course God as ‘the’ ultimate power – necessarily becomes material and irrecoverable simultaneously), như  khi vị đại điền chủ ra lệnh cấm đoán con cái, thế là chúng cứ muôn đời lưu vong, mặc dù ông bố đã thối lui vào trong pháo đài, hay căn nhà của ông, một căn nhà mà những đứa con vẫn có thể nhìn thấy, từ đất đai của họ.
 Cuốn tiểu thuyết Malhamat al Harafish (1977), (Epic of the Harafish)  mở rộng ra, và đào sâu hơn, đề tài trong Những đứa con của Gebelaawi. Bằng vào khả năng ngôn ngữ tinh tế, Harafist có thể chuyển dịch (translate) Cái Tuyệt Đối vào trong câu chuyện, nhân vật, biến động, nơi chốn… nhưng cùng lúc, bởi vì cái tuyệt đối là nguyên lý đầu tiên của sự vật, cho nên nó ương ngạnh, cứng đầu, vẫn giấu biệt cội nguồn của nó, giống như một cái gì lơ lửng, gây nhức nhối, dằn vặt. Cái sống, cái cảm nhận đều hiển nhiên, cụ thể, nhưng thật khó tóm bắt mặc dù được bầy tỏ thật chi ly theo dòng văn xuôi thật đặc biệt của ông. Cũng vậy, sự hiện diện đầy quyền uy của ông bố ở trong Tam Khúc Cairo như treo lơ lửng bên trên mọi hành động của ba thế hệ con cái tiếp theo nhau, sau khi ông đã chết. Quyền uy của ông cứ thế nhạt nhòa đi, như thể ông lui dần về pháo đài, nhưng vẫn lơ lửng đâu đó, kết quả là, tới cuối chuyện, bạn cảm thấy vừa nuối tiếc – về những gì xẩy ra cho những nhân vật ở trong đó -  vừa hy vọng, mong trở lại với mở đầu câu chuyện. Tác giả như muốn giải thích tiến trình này, bằng một đoạn có tên là “Một thông điệp”, trong cuốn Những tiếng dội từ một Tự thuật” (Echoes from an Autobiography, 1994): “Sự độc ác của hồi ức tự nó biểu lộ qua tưởng nhớ những gì bị xoá nhoà qua quên lãng.” (The cruelty of memory manifests itself in remembering what is dispelled in forgetfulness). Mahfouz là một người ghi nhận chính xác bước đi của thời gian. Một ghi nhận chính xác, đừng mong cứu chuộc, nhưng với phán đoán cao độ.



The Cruelty of Memory

Amam al-'Arsh [Before the Throne]

by Naguib Mahfouz
Cairo: Maktabit Misr, 207 pp.

Adrift on the Nile

by Naguib Mahfouz, Translated from the Arabic by Frances Liardet
Anchor, 167 pp., (out of print)

Taht al-Mazella [Under the Shelter]

by Naguib Mahfouz
Cairo: Maktabit Misr, 207 pp.

Children of Gebelaawi

by Naguib Mahfouz, Translated from the Arabic by Philip Stewart
Passeggiata, 497 pp., $17.00 (paper)

The Harafish

by Naguib Mahfouz, Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham
Anchor, 406 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Miramar

by Naguib Mahfouz, Translated from the Arabic by Fatma Moussa-Mahmoud
Passeggiata, 156 pp., $12.00 (paper)
Naguib Mahfouz
Naguib Mahfouz; drawing by David Levine

1.

Before he won the Nobel Prize in 1988, Naguib Mahfouz was known outside the Arab world to students of Arab or Middle Eastern studies largely as the author of picturesque stories about lower-middle-class Cairo life. But even to them he did not seem to have a style or perspective of his own, partly because the few translations available were very uneven in quality and partly because he did not (and still doesn’t) have one translator (and hence one voice) who made it a life’s project to keep producing Mahfouz’s prose masterpieces in English versions.
In 1980 I tried to interest a New York publisher who was then looking for “third world” books to publish in putting out several of the great writer’s works in first-rate translations, but after a little reflection the idea was turned down. When I inquired why, I was told (with no detectable irony) that Arabic was a controversial language. A few years later I had an amiable and, from my point of view, encouraging correspondence about him with Jacqueline Onassis, who was trying to decide whether to take him on; she then became one of the people responsible for bringing Mahfouz to Doubleday, which is where he now resides, albeit still in rather spotty versions that dribble out without much fanfare or notice. Rights to his English translations are held by the American University in Cairo Press, so poor Mahfouz, who seems to have sold them off without expecting that he would someday be a world-famous author, has no say in what has obviously been an unliterary, largely commercial enterprise without much artistic or linguistic coherence.
To Arab readers Mahfouz does in fact have a distinctive voice, which displays a remarkable mastery of language yet does not call attention to itself. But in English he sounds like each of his translators, most of whom (with one or two exceptions) are not stylists and, I am sorry to say, appear not to have completely understood what he is really about. I shall try to suggest in what follows that he has a decidedly catholic and, in a way, overbearing view of his country, and, like an emperor surveying his realm, he feels capable of summing up, judging, and shaping its long history and complex position as one of the world’s oldest, most fascinating and coveted prizes for conquerors like Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, as well as its own natives. In addition Mahfouz has the intellectual and literary means to convey them in a manner entirely his own—powerful, direct, subtle. Like his characters (who are always described right away, as soon as they appear), Mahfouz comes straight at you, immerses you in a thick narrative flow, then lets you swim in it, all the while directing the currents, eddies, and waves of his characters’ lives, Egypt’s his-tory under prime ministers like Saad Zaghloul and Mustapha el Nahas, and dozens of other details of political parties, family histories, and the like, with extraordinary skill. Realism, yes, but something else as well: a vision that aspires to a sort of all-encompassing view not unlike Dante’s in its twinning of earthly actuality with the eternal, but without the Christianity.
There is no way for the English-speaking reader to know that Dweller in Truth (Akhenaten seems to have been added by the US publisher) is a fairly late book (1985) or that in its pharoanic subject matter it is a reversion to Mahfouz’s earliest phase as a novelist. (Rumor has it that the addition was made so that the book could be sold to tourists at the Pyramids.) Born in 1911, between 1939 and 1944 Mahfouz published three, as yet untranslated, novels about ancient Egypt while still an employee at the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments). He also translated James Baikie’s book Ancient Egypt before undertaking his chronicles of modern Cairo in Khan al-Khalili, which appeared in 1945. This period culminated in 1956 and 1957 with the appearance of his superb Cairo Trilogy, completed in 1952. These novels were in effect a summary of modern Egyptian life during the first half of the twentieth century.
The trilogy is a history of the patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family over three generations. While providing an enormous amount of social and political detail, it is also a study of the intimate relationships between men and women, as well as an account of the search for faith of Abd al-Jawad’s younger son, Kamal, after an early and foreshortened espousal of Islam.
After a period of silence that coincided with the first five years following the 1952 Egyptian revolution, prose works began to pour forth from Mahfouz in unbroken succession—novels, short stories, journalism, memoirs, essays, and screenplays. Since his first attempts to render the ancient world Mahfouz has become an extraordinarily prolific writer, one intimately tied to the history of his time; he was nevertheless bound to have explored ancient Egypt again because its history allowed him to find there aspects of his own time, refracted and distilled to suit rather complex purposes of his own. This, I think, is true of Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth, which in its unassuming way is part of Mahfouz’s special concern with power, with the conflict between orthodox religious and completely personal truth, and with the counterpoint between strangely compatible yet highly contradictory perspectives that derive from an often inscrutable and mysterious figure.
Mahfouz has been characterized since he became a recognized world celebrity as either a social realist in the mode of Balzac, Galsworthy, and Zola or a fabulist straight out of the Arabian Nights (as in the view taken by J.M. Coetzee in his disappointing characterization of Mahfouz in these pages1 ). It is closer to the truth to see him, as the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury has suggested, as providing in his novels a kind of history of the novel form, from historical fiction to the romance, saga, and picaresque tale, followed by work in realist, modernist, naturalist, symbolist, and absurdist modes.2
Moreover, despite his transparent manner, Mahfouz is dauntingly sophisticated not only as an Arabic stylist but as an assiduous student of social process and epistemology—that is, the way people know their experiences—without equal in his part of the world, and probably elsewhere for that matter. The realistic novels on which his fame rests, far from being only a dutiful sociological mirror of modern Egypt, are also audacious attempts to reveal the highly concrete way power is actually deployed. That power can derive from the divine, as in his parable Awlad Haritna (Children of Gebelaawi) of 1958, banned by the Egyptian authorities until only a few years ago, in which the great estate owner Gebelaawi is a godlike figure who has banished his children from the Garden of Eden or from the throne, the family, and patriarchy itself, or from civil associations such as political parties, universities, government bureaucracy, and so on. This isn’t to say that Mahfouz’s novels are guided by or organized around abstract principles: they are not, otherwise his work would have been far less powerful and interesting to his uncounted Arab readers, and also to his by now extensive international audience.3
Mahfouz’s aim is, I think, to embody ideas so completely in his characters and their actions that nothing theoretical is left exposed. But what has always fascinated him is in fact the way the Absolute—which for a Muslim is of course God as the ultimate power—necessarily becomes material and irrecoverable simultaneously, as when Gebelaawi’s decree of banishment against his children throws them into exile even as he retreats, out of reach forever, to his fortress—his house, which they can always see from their territory. What is felt and what is lived are made manifest and concrete but they cannot readily be grasped while being painstakingly and minutely disclosed in Mahfouz’s remarkable prose.
Malhamat al Harafish (1977) (Epic of the Harafish) extends and deepens this theme from Children of Gebelaawi. His subtle use of language enables him to translate that Absolute into history, character, event, temporal sequence, and place while, at the same time, because it is the first principle of things, it mysteriously maintains its stubborn, original, if also tormenting aloofness. In Akhenaten the sun god changes the young, prematurely monotheistic king forever but never reveals himself, just as Akhenaten himself is seen only at a remove, described in the numerous narratives of his enemies, his friends, and his wife, who tell his story but cannot resolve his mystery.
Nonetheless Mahfouz also has a ferociously antimystical side, but it is riven with recollections and even perceptions of an elusive great power that seems very troubling to him. Consider, for instance, that Akhenaten’s story requires no fewer than fourteen narrators and yet fails to settle the conflicting interpretations of his reign. Every one of Mahfouz’s works that I know has this central but distant personification of power in it, most memorably the dominating senior figure of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad in the Cairo Trilogy, whose authoritative presence hovers over the action three generations after his death.
In the trilogy his slowly receding eminence is not simply offstage, but is also being transmuted and devalued through such mundane agencies as Abd al-Jawad’s marriage, his licentious behavior, his children, and changing political involvements. Worldly matters seem to puzzle Mahfouz, and perhaps even compel as well as fascinate him at the same time, particularly in his account of the way the fading legacy of al-Sayyid Abd al-Jawad, whose family is Mahfouz’s actual subject, in the end still manages to hold together the three generations over fifty years, through the 1919 Revolution, the liberal era of Saad Zagloul, the British occupation, and the reign of Fuad the First during the interwar period.
The result is that when you get to the end of one of Mahfouz’s novels you paradoxically experience both regret at what has happened to his characters in their long downward progress (as when, in the Cairo Trilogy, one grandson of Abd al-Jawad goes to prison as a Communist, the other as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood) and a barely articulated hope that by going back to the beginning of the story you might be able to recover the sheer force of these people. There is a hint of how gripping this process is in a fragment called “A message” contained in the novelist’s Echoes from an Autobiography (1994): “The cruelty of memory manifests itself in remembering what is dispelled in forgetfulness.” Mahfouz is an unredemptive but highly judgmental and precise recorder of the passage of time.
Thus Mahfouz is anything but a humble storyteller who haunts Cairo’s cafés and essentially works away quietly in his obscure corner. The stubbornness and pride with which he has held to the rigor of his work for a half-century, with its refusal to concede to ordinary weakness, is at the very core of what he does as a writer. What mostly enables him to hold his astonishingly sustained view of the way eternity and time are so closely intertwined is his country, Egypt itself. As a geographical place and as history, Egypt for Mahfouz has no counterpart in any other part of the world. Old beyond history, geographically distinct because of the Nile and its fertile valley, Mahfouz’s Egypt is an immense accumulation of history, stretching back in time for thousands of years, and despite the astounding variety of its rulers, regimes, religions, and races, nevertheless retaining its own coherent identity. Moreover, Egypt has held a unique position among nations. The object of attention by conquerors, adventurers, painters, writers, scientists, and tourists, the country is like no other for the position it has held in human history, and the quasi-timeless vision it has afforded.
To have taken history not only seriously but also literally is the central achievement of Mahfouz’s work and, as with Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn, one gets the measure of his literary personality by the sheer audacity and even the overreaching arrogance of his scope. To articulate large swathes of Egypt’s history on behalf of that history, and to feel himself capable of presenting its citizens for scrutiny as its representatives: this sort of ambition is rarely seen in contemporary writers. As for the prominent figures who shaped Egypt’s history, they too are subject to Mahfouz’s severe gaze. For in a remarkable, as yet untranslated, book that appeared in 1983, Amam al-‘Arsh (Before the Throne), Mahfouz does no less than bring Egypt’s rulers up before a court of eternal judgment consisting of Osiris on a golden throne with Isis and Horus on either side of him: the three are to assess the qualities of the major actors that Mahfouz considers responsible for making Egypt what it is.
Apparently written out of the same desire to excavate Egypt’s distant past as Akhenaten, Before the Throne starts out with the trial of Menes, the country’s founding father, and, dealing with quite a few celebrated figures along the way, comes right up to Gamal Abdel Nasser and his successor, Anwar al-Sadat, whose assassination occurred a short time before the book appeared. What is peculiar about this exercise is that it was undertaken at all, as if the novelist felt it a part of his narrative, and his personal obligation, to examine in one deep breath the people who created Egypt’s history.
Not only does the book attest to Mahfouz’s ambition, it also reveals the continuity he sees in what might appear to have been only a long series of disjunct episodes. And that he should imagine the sequence in terms that connect despotic pharaohs with revolutionary men of the people such as Sadat, Nasser, and Mostapha Nahas, along with Ottoman khedives like Mohammed Ali and Ismail, Coptic patriarchs, Sufi women, poets, and courtiers, further reveals Mahfouz’s profound concern, not to say rivalry, as its jealous chronicler, with authority. The early figures called to account remain in the court chamber for the testimony of their successors, whom they occasionally question, denounce, praise, or otherwise discuss. What results then is a dense texture of the strands that make up Egypt’s historical personality as interwoven by its great figures through the ages.
It is worth noting parenthetically that since the early 1960s a debate has been occurring over the true nature of Egypt’s cultural personality; the debate continues to this day. It was originally stimulated by Nasser’s pan-Arabism, which, according to writers like Lewis Awad and Mahfouz himself, resulted in mutilations of Egypt’s non-Arab history by solecisms (introduced by Arab nationalist enthusiasts) such as “Arab” history, “Arab” socialism, and so on. Later the debate was joined by Islamic parties and individuals who thought that what ought to be stressed was Egypt’s Muslim character, since al-Azhar, the oldest learned Muslim institution devoted to sunnah, or orthodoxy, still flourishingis, after all, in Cairo.
In fact, for the past several months a very intense continuing controversy has been provoked by a novel by the Syrian writer Haidar Haidar, A Banquet for Seaweed, which some people vociferously consider unfit to be cir-culated in Islamic Egypt, on grounds of blasphemy and obscenity (principally).4 The debate over Egypt’s mission, its essence and cultural identity, has not died down, which is one reason why Mahfouz’s work is so central both to Egyptians and to other Arabs.
Not surprisingly, therefore, in Before the Throne, only Gamal Abdel Nasser comes in for rough treatment at the hands of his judges and witnesses. Ramses II, for example, tells Nasser of his admiration and sense of kinship with him as a great leader, but regrets that whereas his own Egypt was a major power, Nasser’s was a small country not up to the large ambitions he had for it. Nasser is criticized by Menes for sinking Egypt’s unique destiny into pan-Arabism. Coming from Menes, sovereign over its unified North and South, this is a serious charge. No less serious is the impassioned denunciation by Mostapha al-Nahas, the country’s last major politician under the monarchy, a man known for his and his wife’s opulent taste and sometimes ostentatious corruption. Mahfouz not only allows him a place among Egypt’s great men, but also has him attack Nasser for his abrogation of human rights, his destruction of the intellectuals, “the avant- garde of Egypt’s people,” by humiliating and dehumanizing them, his corruption of education, his destruction of the public sector, his disastrous military campaigns, all of which led (in one of Mahfouz’s finest phrases) to “empty myths deposited on a hill of ruination.”
When Nasser responds, somewhat weakly I think, that at least he was able to shake up the country as well as the other Arab nations and move them from a condition of defeat, Nahas is again on the attack: Would that you had been more modest in your ambitions, he says, and opened your country to reform and progress, remembering that developing the Egyptian village is more important than world revolution, that scientific research is more important than the Yemen campaign. Osiris closes the hearing by recognizing Nasser paradoxically as the first of Egypt’s leaders to have really cared for its people, but after saying that, the great god allows him only a conditional place among “the immortals” until the unspecified time comes to pass final judgment on all his deeds in an appropriate court.
Mahfouz concludes this revealing book of personal judgments on Egypt’s politics throughout history with Sadat’s trial, an altogether more benign affair at the outset than Nasser’s. Two things deserve notice here. One is that Akhenaten suddenly interjects himself into the discussion by assuring Sadat that he and the assassinated modern pharaoh shared the same dedication to peace and, alas, the same accusation of perfidious treachery. Second is a heated debate between Sadat and Nasser, a semi-bantering, semi-bitter back-and-forth staccato dialogue that has the two men engaged as former co-conspirators and comrades in arms as well as totally opposed rulers of modern Egypt. Only someone as familiar with Egyptian speech as Mahfouz and also as much a master of Arabic literary prose could have pulled this scene off so amusingly, and at the same time, so earnestly:
Gamal Abd al-Nasser asked him: How could it be of such little importance to you to fashion so treacherous a position out of my legacy?
Anwar al-Sadat answered: I was forced to take such a position since my politics were in their essence a correction of the mistakes that I inherited from you.
Nasser: But I delegated [the presidency] to you with my approval as a supporter and a friend.
Sadat: It is unjust to hold a person responsible for a position taken during a period of black terror in which a father feared his son and a brother feared his own brother.
Nasser: The victory you achieved is only the result of my long preparation.
Sadat: There was no way for a defeated person such as yourself to realize victory, but I gave the people back their freedom and dignity, then I led them to a sure victory.
Nasser: Then you compromised everything on behalf of a demeaning peace and you tore apart the unity of the Arabs while condemning Egypt to isolation.
So Sadat said: I inherited a nation hovering on the edge of the precipice of oblivion at a time when the Arabs would not give me a real helping hand. So it became clear that they neither wanted us dead nor strong so that we would continue to prostrate ourselves begging for their money. No, I didn’t hesitate to make my decisions.
Nasser: So you exchanged a giant who has always supported us for a giant who has always been a hostile enemy.
Sadat: I went to a giant who had a real solution. [Later] events confirmed my belief.
Nasser: You rushed headlong into the infitah [Sadat’s “opening up” of Egypt to unrestricted private and foreign investment] to the point where you submerged the country in a wave of inflation and corruption. As much as Iprovided security for the poor in my era, you provided security for the rich and the thieves.
So Anwar al-Sadat stated: I worked for the good of Egypt but the opportunists worked behind my back.

2.

Much the same examination as in Before the Throne is at the heart of the somber Akhenaten, in which Mahfouz also reverts to the Rashomon-like procedures of his earlier masterpiece about Alexandria, Miramar (1967). Miramar takes place in a pension where Zahra, an attractive provincial woman, works as a maid, lusted after by the men who live there. Each of the narrators is a man personifying some aspect of Egypt’s political spectrum during the late years of the officers’ revolution of the early 1950s. Hence, we are presented with the narrative of a Wafdist, a disenchanted socialist, a Nasserite opportunist.
In Akhenaten a young man, Meriamun, and his father are drifting south along the Nile and pass a deserted city. Intrigued by what he sees, the young man learns just enough from the older man to decide to seek out the truth about the city, its deceased ruler, and his now isolated widowed queen. He does so by getting the main participants in Akhenaten’s story to tell him their version of what happened. Meriamun then explains why he undertakes his quest: “For Father himself had a passion for knowledge and recording the truth, a fact that made our palace a gathering point for men of both worldly and religious affairs.” The problem with this sentence is that “recording the truth” is the translator’s interpolation, which (admittedly in a small way) alters the somewhat retentive leanness of Mahfouz’s own prose.
Now I should say immediately that I am not, and never will be, a translator, but the one thing that came up whenever I compared the Arabic with the English version of Akhenaten is the many liberties—most of them explications or interpolations—that have been taken with the original. What has always struck me about Mahfouz is not only the lapidary quality of his writing in Arabic but also the luxuriant possibilities of meaning, which he always leaves unstated, packed in under the words, so to speak. In the passage quoted above the translator has taken an unnecessarily obtrusive step forward at exactly the point where the Arabic simply leaves off. The words for “had a passion for” in Arabic are changed peremptorily by the translator from Mahfouz’s original, more passive phrase meaning “was embedded in,” or “rooted in” and “anchored in,” which allows him to imply a comparison between the old man’s sedentary life and the son’s itinerant search for knowledge in the rest of the novel.
In any case, armed with letters of introduction, the young narrator, Meriamun, proceeds to interview all the principal figures (the last of whom is Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s surviving wife) in the young king’s tragedy, his disastrous reign of peace, the various priestly, military, and palace intrigues that surrounded him and finally seem to have left him to perish bewildered, alone, and most probably betrayed. In many ways Akhenaten is the exact opposite of Conrad’s Kurtz, a figure of light as opposed to darkness. (Heart of Darkness is one of the works that Mahfouz speaks of with unqualified admiration.) The enigmatic king is recalled by his relatives, courtiers, generals, siblings, policemen, artists, and priests in response to the questions of the importunate Meriamun, who gives us his impressions but not always his conclusions. The material itself is both rich and often confusingly complex, a contrapuntal mixture of themes and counterthemes turning on such questions as whether Akhenaten and his mother were lovers, whether Nefertiti was a power-mad schemer or a devoted consort, and whether the king was saner or sicker than most, which compound, elaborate, deepen, and enhance Akhenaten’s mystery.
The heart of that mystery is whether Akhenaten was a great monotheistic visionary, whose belief in the one ineffable god and the gospel of peace was ahead of and too much for its time; or whether he was a weak, manipulative, and incompetent heretic (which, as someone who banished all the other gods, he seemed to followers of the god Amun, for instance) who let Egypt sink into the civil dissension that threatened its unity and even its borders. Yet, to return for a moment to Before the Throne, the difference between the mysterious pharaoh and Sadat (who seems to be paired with his ancient predecessor in Mahfouz’s mind) is that whereas the pharaonic ruler claimed to have been serving a deity, Sadat did no such thing and remained instead a flamboyant egoist. Thus for Mahfouz the fascination in this ancient episode is not only that we can never know the main character, but that this character’s search for an even more distant truth makes him harder still to fathom.
In Akhenaten the authority, and even the integrity, of Egypt’s identity is either carried on or, as several of the hostile witnesses believe, it is threatened. In either case, power, its maintenance and its decline, is central to the novel, principally because Akhenaten himself does not know how to use it to advance his cause. I don’t think that Mahfouz’s task as novelist is made easier by his almost certain knowledge that Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Tutankhamen, Akhenaten’s young successor, are the three most famous characters from ancient Egyptian history, first of all because so much is known about them, and second because, more than Amenhotep I, Ramses II, or Thutmose IV, they have an appealing humanity that has made them the favorites of contemporary interpreters. One example of what I mean is the movie The Egyptian (1954), starring Michael Wilding as Akhenaten, Gene Tierney as Nefertiti, and Victor Mature as Akhenaten’s childhood friend Horemhab. This was a Hollywood film that made a great impression on me when I saw it in Cairo as a young man many years ago, even though I grew up surrounded by the lore, the real sites, and the imposing objects of ancient Egypt. The conflict between spirituality and worldly power was well, if sometimes hokily, staged in that film.
More recently, Tut has been represented in opulent exhibitions all over the West, and Akhenaten too has gotten his share of attention in sev-eral shows (including one earlier this year at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts5 ) that highlight and even domesticate the king’s city, Amarna, as well as the peculiarly elongated, softly adipose, and distinctly effeminate figurative style of his reign. A new book on Tutankhamen by Christine El Mahdy6 goes strenuously in the other direction by saying that Akhenaten did not really have an original religious vision, and was most probably gay, a thought that seems not to have crossed Mahfouz’s mind.
Some other matters need to be mentioned here. One is Mahfouz’s fascination with the sheer mechanics of the way information is transmitted and how in the process historical time is transmuted into the details (always clear but always inconclusive)of everyday life. For him language is designed not just to convey information but to show the inexorable distortions that are revealed in words by character, passion, material interest, and identity. After having listened to Akhenaten’s enemies and his friends, Meriamun finally meets his wife, Nefertiti, who was closest of all to Akhenaten: there is every expectation that she will resolve matters by revealing her husband to be the eager searcher for the truth Meriamun believes him to be. She confesses to having left him in order to save his life (perhaps, she thought, the ecstatic pharaoh’s indecision about acting forcefully to save the country from invaders might be overcome if she were to leave his side—as a result, he might take action).
But even Nefertiti will never know the final truth about her husband and can only rely on a terse report that “the heretic” died alone, of illness, even though he may have been murdered. All the testimonies are therefore shimmeringly ambiguous, without confirmation, except that everyone who has encountered him thinks that Akhenaten felt his faith and could neither completely convey it to others nor make it survive his own reign. Yet otherwise all the testimony, including his own, is a misrepresentation of some sort, as if with each transmission and declaration the truth recedes at the same time that the Pharaoh’s power diminishes. The more his passion claims him, the less powerful a ruler he becomes, and the conviction he tries to convey grows more esoteric. Locked up within himself, elusive—in human terms it comes more and more to resemble death.
A few common views emerge from the various narratives given to Meriamun by such personages as Tiye, Akhenaten’s powerful Nubian mother, who is said to be his lover; Ay, Nefertiti’s father; Toto, the chief epistler; Meri-Ra, the high priest of Akhenaten’s One and Only God; and Maho, chief of police for Akhenaten. Most impressive for all of them is Akhenaten’s total conviction in his invisible and silent god. He is adamantly unwilling to allow the other, traditional gods any place in Egypt. These beliefs are given lyrical utterance in the various ecstatic hymns he is reported as singing to his increasingly personal, as well as distant, god.
Another is his absolute dedication to peace, his refusal to use force or violence, his desire to irradiate his kingdom with love. Mahfouz gives no indication at all that he approves of Akhenaten’s incompetence as a ruler and, in fact, to judge the Pharaoh from Mahfouz’s other works, he seems to feel not only no evident compassion but a tinge of scorn along with the admiration he has for Akhenaten’s religious fervor. Still another motif is the mild Pharaoh’s absolute disregard for worldly symbols and authority; this will finally cost him the support of his friend Haremhab, a great military man who late in Akhenaten’s reign takes his power away from him.
What clearly concerns Mahfouz, however, is that there is a radical irreconcilability between Akhenaten’s generous and strict beliefs and the maintenance of Egypt’s coherence as a state and as an idea while he is its ruler. The trouble is that Akhenaten allows no compromises at all, and refuses to have anything to do with politics. So is he a saint or, in fact, a dangerous man, a man willing to sacrifice the good of his country (e.g., by refusing to defend its borders) for his beliefs?
The novel allows no completely satisfying answer except to underline and deepen the dilemma, in the process removing it from the realm of epistemology to that of “worldly” history. (The word for “this world” as opposed to the “other world” recurs frequently in the Arabic: al-dunia.) Mahfouz suggests that the best and most elevated ideas can never override the animosities and rivalries, the vested interests of history, not because noble ideas are not powerful enough, but because there isn’t uncomplicated, unpeopled time enough to let those ideas work their redemptive or healing power. The other problem is that al-dunia requires some sort of centralized order to keep it from the whirling disorder Mahfouz sometimes elicits in his later stories and novels, for which he often blames the intelligentsia.
A group of novels set in the period from 1967 to the mid-1980s depicts such a situation, notably Tharthara fawq al-Nil (Adrift on the Nile) and Taht al-Mazalla (Under the Shelter). The former is about some friends who have gathered on a Nile houseboat around Anis Zaki, a government clerk who has lost his wife and daughter. Like him, his friends live in a world of narcotic intoxication and wordy frustration; they are involved in a car accident in which a peasant is killed but no one has the courage to report it. The spirit of Under the Shelter, a set of six stories and five plays, is best described as expressionist. The title story depicts people standing aimlessly under a bus shelter, passively watching all sorts of bizarre occurrences (orgies, heads rolling in the dust, car accidents, etc.) with no central theme or purpose.
So Mahfouz’s Egypt is a charged one, strikingly vivid for the accuracy and humor with which he portrays it, in a mode that is neither completely taken with great heroes nor able to do without some dream of total harmony of the kind Akhenaten so desperately strives to keep but cannot sustain. Without a powerful controlling center, Egypt can easily dissolve into anarchy or an absurd, gratuitous tyranny based either on religious dogma or on a personal dictatorship.
Mahfouz is now eighty-nine years old, nearly blind, and, after he was physically assaulted by religious fanatics in 1994 because of his moderate position on Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, is said to be a recluse. What is both remarkable and poignant about him is how, given the largeness of his vision and his work, he still seems to guard his nineteenth-century liberal belief in a decent, humane society for Egypt even though the evidence he keeps dredging up and writing about in contemporary life and in history continues to refute that belief. The irony is that, more than anyone else, he has dramatized in his work the almost cosmic antagonism that he sees Egypt as embodying between majestic absolutes on the one hand and, on the other, the gnawing at and wearing down of these absolutes by people, history, society. These opposites he never really reconciles. Yet as a citizen Mahfouz sees civility and the continuity of a transnational, abiding, Egyptian personality in his work as perhaps surviving the debilitating processes of conflict and historical degeneration which he, more than anyone else I have read, has so powerfully depicted.
  1. 1Fabulous Fabulist,” The New York Review, September 22, 1994. 
  2. 2 Elias Khoury, “Mahfouz: The First Arab,” in Mawaqif, Vol. 57 (Winter 1989). 
  3. 3 I have found Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning by Rasheed el-Enany (Routledge, 1993) very useful. It is the most comprehensive work on Mahfouz in English. 
  4. 4 See Max Rodenbeck’s article on this subject, “Witch Hunt in Egypt,” The New York Review, November 16, 2000, and Sabry Hafez, “The Novel, Politics and Islam,” New Left Review, Vol. 5, Second Series (September-October 2000), pp. 117-141. 
  5. 5 “Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen,” November 14, 1999-February 6, 2000. 
  6. 6 Tutankhamen: The Life and Death of the Boy-King (St. Martin’s, 2000). 

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