Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Egyptian noir, and by a Nobel Prize-winner no less

A back-cover blurb to The Thief and the Dogs calls Naguib Mahfouz "not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola, and a Jules Romains." He was a Jim Thompson and a David Goodis, too, in this 1961 tale of a wronged man released from jail, bent on revenge, and bound for destruction.

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

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18 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Some time ago you were talking about the blandness of city "one book" programmes. Well the NEH has been doing the Big Read for over a year now and its list is quite interesting and includes The Thief and the Dogs.


v word = squeezn (there's no way that's random)

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My edition of the novel is the one pictured with the post, complete with the "Big Read" logo. (It's not a sticker; it's printed on the cover.) I grimaced at the name of the program, but I was pleased to see that The Thief and the Dogs had been selected. It meets every criterion I could think of for such a program: It's well-written, it's serious, it has genre appeal, its author is a big name, its country of origin gives it topical interest.

I read in an online biography of Mahfouz, by the way, that he liked Western detective stories. And I liked this story. Previously I'd read "Children of Gebelawi," whose allegory I found heavy going, and "Midaq Alley," which was entertaining but a bit dated or obvious in its socially oriented realism even it was occasionally daring in its subject matter. (No, I haven't read the Cairo trilogy.)

Perhaps the v-word generator knows that I have read Donald Westlake's "Fugitive Pigeon" because my word is conme.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

"Pious noir." That's a sub-genre for you! Sounds fascinating.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, perhaps not a sub-genre that would work that well in our non-pious world. Think of the innumerable instances of a protagonist being tortured by his conscience. (Of course, I can't think of any right now, but I kow they're there.) That's what Mahfouz is doing with the sheikh's utterances, the last of which is especially double-edged.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

It still sounds like an interesting juxtaposition. I think I'll add it to my reading list.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

Another book that would slot into the pious-noir category would be John Burdett's Bangkok 8. It's Buddhist infused.

My v-word was erses. That's wot they carry dead bodies away in, in'it?

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

At cockney funerals, yes.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I don't have much to say about all this "transcending the genre" shite, but the next time you get dragged into such a discussion, you might want to cite The Thief and the Dogs. Then, when someone says Naguib Mahfouz transcended the genre, ask the really pertinent question: Why did he choose to write within that particular genre?

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Vanda, I tried to read Bangkok 8 but found the local color overbearing, even though I'd say that means Burdett did a good job capturing it.

Does Buddhism figure in the plot in a major way?

November 26, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Too bad I didn't know about this book just a tad earlier, as I've been making use of one of our tables at the bookstore to do a Noir display, in part because there are so many international and regional anthologies being printed right now. It would have been nice to feature an Egyptian title, but I think they're taking the table back after Thanksgiving for some more upbeat holiday style claptrap.

v word=propr Sorry, WV, not sure who you're indicating here. Probably not me.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You could sneak a copy onto the table. What books are there now? I should imagine that a number of Akashic Books' "City Noir" series made it. A Nobel Prize winner, and one from the Arab world, yet, would have attracted some well-deserved attention, I should think.

But keep thinking of creative displays, and help our cause!

November 27, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Actually, now that I think about it,I have shelf space to make a smaller display once this gets displaced. You're right, I have mainly the Akashic series, filled out with the old standards like Chandler and Hammett, and their disciple Ross MacDonald.And I've had both the Megan Abbotts we carry, as well as The Big Book of Pulp. But I also have Jean-Claude Izzo featured there and there is actually a newish novel called Noir by Olivier Pauvert. You may have posted here about it somewhere already. I was a little insecure about calling something 'noir' if I was unclear about it, so erred on the side of caution by seeing if it was blurbed by anyone as noir. If I found that description of it anywhere, that was good enough for me.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, I haven't posted about Noir, though I did see the book on a shelf recently, and I winced a bit at the self-consciousness of the title. Jean-Claude Izzo is a fine choice.

Noir is open to a wide variety of definitions, so a variety of books is not a bad idea. Is noir a style? An attitude? A predicament?

I interviewed Megan Abbott some time back, for example, and, while I called Queenpin noir, she thought of it as more hard-boiled. Thing is, her reason was as good as mine. She based her assessment on what is stated at the novel's end. I based mine on what was implied.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

So noir is more a state of mind?

Uh oh. My v word is 'patsi'. That sounds hard-boiled to me.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This (noir, not patsies) was the subject of a presentation at NoirCon in Philadelphia in April. Happily, the presentation made no attempt to set guidelines. Rather, it showed some of the ways the term has been used.

I have heard the extreme position that, since noir was used first to describe movies, it makes no sense as a literary term. Probably by extension from its use for movies, for some people it describes atmosphere. For others, it means something like hard-boiled.

I've heard a number of authors quote with approval a definition, I think James Ellroy's, that noir means "You're fucked." My own definition is close to that, if more delicately expressed. For me, noir means a protagonist whose doom is inevitable. The protagonist may not recognize this, and he or she may fight against it, but in the end, he or she is ... well, you know. And for me, the ending has to hit me like a punch in the stomach -- queasy, I suppose, that the character's doom could easily be my own.

I posted about this question here. The post contains a link the interview with Megan Abbott that sparked the discussion.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Logan Lamech said...

I expect more literature to allow a devine presence in the future. Afterall as a literary community no stone is left unturn.

Logan Lamech
www.eloquentbooks.com/LingeringPoets.html

November 27, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Thank you. This is very elegantly put. I am not sure if the ending of the first book in the Izzo trilogy precisely leaves me with that feeling, but perhaps the trilogy as a whole will. However the doomed atmosphere is pervasive.

I'll check out the links when I have a bit more time. For now, it's Thanksgiving and I'm heading out soon.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"However the doomed atmosphere is pervasive."

Don't forget that atmosphere is part of noir, too, and Izzo Marseilles has loads of it, with the music, the food and Fabio Montale's melancholy.

November 27, 2008  

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