I’ve recently read my first Egyptian novel and my first Israeli crime novel, although this was coincidence rather than a deliberate attempt to read across both sides of a long-standing conflict in the Middle East. Unlike the works of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, however, neither of the two books were political, although they both paint portraits of rapidly changing societies with many cracks beneath the surface.
Mahfouz is the only Arabic-speaking winner of the Nobel Literature Prize (in 1988). He almost single-handedly modernised Egyptian literature, introducing themes such as politics, existentialism, the voice of the dispossessed, as well as cinematic techniques to his storytelling. This novel is the story of the downfall of a Cairo family in the 1930s, an account of their struggle to survive and make ends meet following the death of the father, a petty government bureaucrat. Although the children are almost fully grown, their efforts to earn money and help the rest of them rise from poverty are beset with difficulties every step of the way.
I was not overly impressed with the book, which reads like a soap opera, until I considered how revolutionary it must have been for its period. The author gives us an unvarnished picture of Egyptian society at a particular point in time: the 1930s and 1940s. We see the corruption and machinations of the Egyptian bureaucracy, its education system, the plotting to marry off daughters, the dangers of women losing their virginity. Yet, although all this societal constraints seem to be suffocating the protagonists, Mahfouz makes no bones about laying an equal share of the blame upon them. Their weaknesses, lack of restraint, selfish behaviours, self-justifications all contribute to the tragic outcomes.
I have not read his other books, but I understand that Mahfouz is highly regarded precisely not only for modernising the language of fiction but also for his detailed examination of daily events in the life of middle-class families, in a society which has undergone major changes over the course of a few decades. It’s this translation of major political events into small everyday happenings and interpretations, this fresco of a vanishing way of life, which makes his work so valuable within his own cultural context. But his family sagas of greed, lies, misguided idealism and disappointments also touch universal themes.
A bomb planted in a suitcase in present-day Tel Aviv – this has all of the hallmarks of a political thriller, but it turns out to be a much more personal story of revenge, confusion, parental love and fear. The style could not be more different from Mahfouz: almost clinically detached, sober, simple and precise language. Emotion is still there, but well concealed and tightly controlled throughout.
Mishani is a former editor and specialist of crime fiction, and he uses all the usual crime tropes well in his work. This is clearly a book designed to entertain rather than create a polemical debate. Yet this is not a typical police procedural: we catch glimpses of the complex environment that the police have to operate under in Israel today. Apparently, the police are universally reviled by all ethnic groups living within the borders of Israel, even by those citizens who revere the army. Although the author eschews political views in this book, there are echoes of the tensions between different subgroups within society, rumblings about the way in which Filipino care workers are treated and regarded in this country made up almost entirely of immigrants.