Egyptian noir, and by a Nobel Prize-winner no less
Parts of the story will be familiar to fans of American hard-boiled and noir; Said Mahran's beloved wife has left him while he was in prison, for example, and married one of his old criminal colleagues. But other aspects must have resonated especially with Egyptian readers, helping explain, perhaps, why the brave and admirable Mahfouz ran afoul both of the Egyptian government and of Islamic fundamentalists during his long career.
One target of Mahran's widening circle of revenge and obsession, for example, is a one-time preacher of theft from the rich as a political act who has now himself become rich. At the time of the novel's writing, Egypt was still under the rule of a youngish colonel who was turning strongly toward socialism. A revolutionary-turned-fat cat may well have struck a chord with readers, the protagonist's impotent rage and humiliation at such a figure even more so.
God, too, plays a strong supporting role, a presence unthinkable in most American crime writing. Mahran seeks shelter and food in the home of a sheikh to whom his father had taken him when Mahran was a boy. The sheikh is merciful, but God is a haunting and all-pervasive presence in every answer he offers to the increasingly desperate Mahran. I don't know what Mahfouz's own religious beliefs were, but he took God seriously in his fiction.
(A tip of the tarboosh to Adrian McKinty for pointing me toward this book.)
© Peter Rozovsky 2008