Monday, December 03, 2007

The Day the Leader Was Killed by Naguib Mahfouz

The Day the Leader Was Killed by Naguib Mahfouz
(translated by Malak Mashem), (orig. pub. in 1985).

This is a slender novel by Mahfouz, only 103 pages. Mahfouz is one of the greatest writers of the Middle East in modern times. He was recognized for his accomplishment with the Nobel Prize in Literature. Almost anyone in the Middle East you talk to knows of him. He died only this year, in his nineties. It was primarily through him that the novel as a form of writing was introduced into the Middle East. And O, how richly! The warmth and humane eye of his novels ponders the streets of Cairo, Egypt, the lives and loves and struggles and sorrows of humanity in the alleys and streets and behind the closed doors. The universal commonality of people is clearly brought to the fore in his deft works.

I don’t care to make this a lengthy and needless praise. My purpose here is to hopefully bring to mind some of the noble and lovely, etc. things for at the least my fuller contemplation. The story is exquisitely told. It is about the love of a working age couple under the stresses of poverty and political unrest in Egypt. Each chapter alternates between three characters, Elwan and Randa and Elwan’s grandfather, Mutashimi Zayed. The grandfather in the story is a pious Sufi Muslim that has had a wild past. The kind of sweetness and stress on universal love in Sufi Islam comparative to the more austere and stern and miltant strains seems to be reflected in Mahfouz’s books in general, but that is just a guess.

This book is a fine piece of art. It takes a writer like Mahfouz to be able to find the exact sentences with which to somehow evoke depth of emotion in his characters and the corresponding resonance in his readers in so few words. It takes a truly praiseworthy elegance of mind to trace the inner thoughts and lives of these three characters in a way that really captures depth and dimension, passion and sweetness, anger and despair, not just in them but also in the peripheral characters through their eyes.

There is something about Mahfouz’s writings that is like a kind of sunlit illumination. I don’t mean this sentimentally. First there is his broad eye which is reminiscent of Tolstoy for how much he takes in and the deft verisimilitude with which he paints a picture of the lives in his story. And there is the soulful focus on people. People are central to his writings. By the sunlit I mean this kind of attention to each person, even to the villains, that somehow is soft like the light of sunset. There is a kind of benevolence and knowing in his novels. He sees a great deal and does not hesitate to portray the dark motives and the evil behaviors but he treats all with a dignity so that there is a kind of perspective that is not inimical to the command to love ones enemies.

This book was also for me a chance to reflect on the exterior pressures such as finances and family on love. The portrayal of poverty and the sense of its oppressiveness and strain was also made more palpable. Elwan was not able to make enough money to pay for a flat and so he had to postpone marrying Randa until her parents began to intervene and her lecherous and ambitious boss sought to make the most of the opportunity and to enlist her in his project like a useful item rather than an end in herself. The dignity and the pride and humbleness in the midst of the stresses of poverty is portrayed in a moving way in the lives of these characters, each with their perspectives and cares and perceptions and emotions. The grandfather’s love for his grandson as he is nearing the end of his life with the distance of age is also movingly depicted.

Reading a book on the Triune God and going in increasingly rarified air, it was a true respite to turn to this novel on a sleepless night.

Such a novel I think depicts simply and elegantly and truthfully something that is often denied now, put out of mind as strange and foreign, or even militantly and openly attacked, the perception that men and women have natures, that love can grow up naturally and more or less purely between them, and that these routes can be abandoned by warping ways that effect our character, such as ambition, which stifles and paves over the possibility of true love in a man or woman’s breast, by solidified ways of thinking and basing their life which negate the other, the Thou, preventing the fullness of the I and Thou relationship. It is in this sense a good and gentle reminder of the natural and a beacon to seek it.

One of the sins condemned in Romans 1 is the lack of natural affection (such as a mother who abandons her baby). C.S. Lewis discusses this concept as it was conveyed in an archaic meaning of the word kinde in a poem by George Herbert: “In Herbert’s ‘I the unkinde, ungratefull’ (from Love) the modern meaning would be disastrous; the idea of general beneficence fromman to God borders on the absurd. Herbert is classing himself with ‘unkind mothers’ and ‘unnatural children’ as one who, with gross insensibility, makes no response to the arch-natural appeal of the tenderest and closest personal relation that can be imagined; one who is loved in vain.” –C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words, p. 32-33.

This is what I think of when I think of the effects of idolatry, on me and on others. The plastering over of natural affections, the replacement of them with void and drugs and distractions, with buzz and squirminess and shallow vapidity in the presence of the profound and lovely and whole. In every country it seems there are always those growing up who view their country with a canny eye, who love the people and life they know enough to caressingly portray truth about it, granted with the imperfection and limitation of man. But they are always signs, it seems, to point us all, any who will heed, to truths which are plain to all except when pushed out by idolatry.

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