In his brilliant essay “The Storyteller” Walter Benjamin reflects on the work of the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, concluding that “the storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself”.
We could do no better than if we approach the work of Naguib Mahfouz with Benjamin’s reflections of Leskov in mind.
Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911 and died in 2006. He created a body of work that is regarded as some of the most influential Arabic literature of the 20th century. In 1988 he became the first Arab writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The Lebanese writer Alawiya Sobh has argued that the Arabic speaking world has been greatly influenced by him: “Mahfouz created an undeniably vast well of narrative memory to which we are largely in debt…he restructured our world to reveal its ugliness.”
Writing in 1988 the late Edward Said wrote that Mahfouz was “the greatest living Arab novelist”. He is credited with teaching a new generation of Arabic writers to look at their societies and lives through Eastern eyes and not the distorted vision of a Western construct.
The discovery of 18 previously unpublished short, interrelated “narratives”, as the translator Roger Allen labels them, is therefore something of an event.
And like much of the work he produced the characters that populate these narratives are the poor and downtrodden, the petty official, the mosque’s imam and the local criminals. Each lives in a small quarter of a bigger city — Cairo — that is part of a vast country — Egypt.
The collection gives us a glimpse into a world that seems both ancient and distant, however the series is undated so could be set in a 1960 or 1990 district of Cairo, or among people dwelling in the City of the Dead — a centuries-old network of necropolises and cemeteries on the edge of modern Cairo.
What is distinctive about his stories, not just in this slim volume but in many of his other works, is the pared down narrative style. There are no unnecessary descriptive details, just a narration of ordinary or extraordinary events in the Quarter dwellers’ everyday lives and their fatalistic acceptance that things happen as they do because god has willed it.
And yet his “simple” characters reveal to the reader not just the brutality of everyday life but also its distorted beauty. They show the complexities and uniqueness of their world and in doing so offer lessons for all of humanity to draw on.
His honest depiction of the role of Islam, both as a positive and negative force in society, drew the ire of some, who argued that his book Children of Gebelawi had laid the ground for Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. An assassination attempt 1994 saw him stabbed in the neck, his injuries leaving him unable to write for more than a few minutes a day, greatly reducing his output in later life.
This slim volume offers a teasing glimpse of Mahfouz’s work. If you have not read him before seek it out — and then go on to read the Cairo Trilogy or The Journey of Ibn Fattouma.