Sunday, November 24, 2013

Up on the Roof

The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany

No doubt you've had the experience of walking down city streets or standing at a hotel window and imaging the lives being lived in the buildings around you.  With any luck, now and again, you might get a quick glimpse into someone's living room, or see a family just sitting down to dinner.  You're not a voyeur (or perhaps you are), in any case you enjoy the thrill of observing other lives "in the moment," no matter how ordinary those lives, or how like your own. As a fictional device, peering through open windows and doors, touring apartment buildings and hotels, violating the privacy of others, can be deployed with great skill and subtlety or in a ham-handed fashion--Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual or Arthur Hailey's Hotel.  I suppose it would be a stretch to point to Dante's Divine Comedy as the source of this voyeuristic tradition (Hotel Hell); more likely candidates would come from the modernist tradition, from Baudelaire perhaps, or from flâneurs like Walter Benjamin--from books like the Arcade Project or Edmund White's love songs to Paris--the stroller, idle, searching for "adventures," usually romantic, peering through open windows, intruding upon the lives of others.

That's the Yacoubian Building in Cairo, the setting for the vastly entertaining novel by Alaa Al Aswany, a bestseller in Egypt, a novel that places within one space the interwoven lives of two dozen characters, from an impoverished doorman to a playboy millionaire.  It's an engaging book, full of sexual longing, abortive ambition, political intrigue, and urban voyeurism.  The trajectories--tragic in the case of some of the denizens of the Yacoubian Building and comic in the case of others--are set out with precision and care in the first pages.  The young, idealist Taha el Shazli wishes to be a police officer but has to overcome the poverty of his upbringing (his is the saddest story of the lot); the ambitious tailor Malak who understands how to game the underground economy to get ahead; Zaki Bey el Dessouki whose amorousness is insatiable and whose pursuit of pleasure is sadly comic; Souad Gaber, second wife of the wealthy and ambitious Hagg Muhammad Azzam--she loathes her husband but tolerates him for her son's sake.  There's a bit of melodrama in all of these stories, a sense of "God's plenty," but never any banality--I wondered while reading The Yacoubian Building if I would have found the novel as enchanting if it had been set in New York or Albuquerque--probably not. The power of the book derives in large measure from its setting in Cairo in the 1980's, just prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.  This is a world I know, in small part, from Mahfouz (whose novels, like the Cairo Trilogy, are, however, set in an earlier period) from reading contemporary Egyptian history, and from having seen this past summer half-a-dozen contemporary Egyptian films.  The small details of life in this teeming city made this novel especially attractive, so much so that I abandoned all of my other reading projects as well as my paid work to follow the charming and sad lives lived in the Yacoubian Building.  There were moments when I surprised myself by flipping ahead in the story to see what would happen (to Taha mostly)--I'm not usually so engaged by mere stories that I cheat--I even read the last five pages long before I had a right to, something I haven't done since reading Natsuo Kirino's Out and being so eager to see how she would resolve her tale that I took a peek at the last page.  Al Aswany was, maybe still is, a dentist by profession.  What could be more quotidian than looking in people's mouths?  What more natural training could there be--far better than the pointless MFA--than dentistry for the dissection of human existence?

Al Aswany is the most popular contemporary novelist in Egypt and among the most popular in the Middle East.  Born in 1957, he became, during the eighteen days of Tahrir Square, "the face of the Egyptian Revolution."  His political views are controversial both in Egypt, where he has been an opponent of the two regimes that replaced Mubarak, and in the United States where he has been attacked by the center-right New Republic and the far-right Blaze as an "anti-Zionist conspiracy theorist. "  I'll leave the name-calling to the pundits and merely mention that the politics of Al Aswany's fiction appear to me to be even-handed--ironic and Voltarian rather than ideological.  His public statements are, of course, his business, as are his personal political views.  He is, after all, a dentist and a writer and not a politician.

The Yacoubian Building, translated by Humphrey Davies, is published by Harper Perennial.

George Ovitt (11/24/13)


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