Monday, February 19, 2007

Book # 3 - "The Day The Leader Was Killed" by Naguib Mahfouz

The prolific Egyptian author passed away a few months ago. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. Mahfouz is a prominent author of Arabic fiction published in English with more than 30 novels to his credit. This book is translated by Malak Mashem.

The setting is in Cairo, Egypt. The time is 1981. Anwar al Sadat is the president of Egypt and his much maligned open door economic policy, Infitah isn't very popular among the hoi polloi. Set in this backdrop, the novel focuses on a middle class Cairene family. The story unfolds with narratives told alternately by 3 main characters. You have Muhtashimi Zayed, the wise patriarch. His grandson, Elwan Fawwaz Muhtashimi and his feisty fiancee Banda Sulayman Mubarak.

It is a compact novel with lyrical prose about their lives during a time of great upheaval. Each of them struggling to adapt to economic changes but at the same time trying to hold on to their traditional values as individuals and as an Arab family. Main issues like arranged marriages, the emancipation of women, the responsibilities expected from the eldest male grandson as well as the firm belief in old Arabic customs and traditions are clearly explored by the 3 main characters. Their thoughts and concerns with regards to the changing times in Cairo in the 1980s is also given much focus.

It is loosely translated in English and although the main essence of the book remains, I have no doubt the Arabic version written by Naguib Mahfouz would have been more poignant and fraught with flowery language. There are certain phrases in Arabic which cannot be truly translated in English without losing its context.

I have always been fascinated with novels set in exotic locales like Istanbul, Cairo, Teheran and Afghanistan. This is my first Naguib Mahfouz novel which I finished reading a few weeks back. Although it has only about 100 pages, I still took my time to get lost in the details of the story. I was clearly impressed by the fast paced manner the story unfolded despite it being such a short story/novel. The characters are well developed and even if their lives took different paths, they remained true to who they really are. The assassination of Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981 is the focal point in this fictional story which ends with a good climax. No loose ends dangling, the characters don't necessarily have a happy ending yet it has definite closure.

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