Novelists might be usefully divided into idealists, who wish to see a better world even as they strive to faithfully portray the one that is, and realists, who interpret life in a harsher and more pessimistic way, as if to say that nothing will ever change. The Egyptian writer Alaa al Aswany is, without doubt, one of the latter. Aswany, who leapt into the consciousness of the Anglophone universe with the publication of a translation of his novel The Yacoubian Building in 2007, is a poet of the appetites and passions of a moral universe that is corrupt and doesn’t mind it. Some readers have declared him an heir to Naguib Mahfouz for his panoramic narratorial vision and interest in low-life stories, but the resemblance is really one of structure and not of spirit. Aswany is very much an original.
Canvas: Much of the book is set in Cairo. The Art Archive / Gianni Dagli Orti
Friendly Fire, comprising a novella and a bunch of stories, is Aswany’s latest attempt to copy Egyptian life into a set of highly charged and coloured fiction. Since both his earlier novels, The Yacoubian Building and Chicago, spun around the lives of a dozen or so characters at the same time, one might argue that Aswany is basically a writer of short stories anyway: His interest is in character sketches that will build up into a portrait of an entire world. As with the earlier books, Friendly Fire, too, is about the brazen and self-seeking behaviour of those “well-versed in the uses of power” and the powerless ones, who feel the lash of their whips. Indian readers will find there is much that is familiar in Aswany’s portraits of politicians, heads of university departments, bureaucrats and doctors, happily feathering their nests even as they hypocritically mouth prayers and pieties.
The trick in Aswany’s method, though, is in never criticizing overtly, but only showing us the world as it is. In this way, without moralizing, he both revels in ugliness and yet succeeds in making us feel guilty on behalf of those characters who find out, to their shock and despair, that “it is by evil laws that the world is governed”. That is the difference between him and someone like Aravind Adiga in Between the Assassinations, which is also a good book but sometimes shows all too much the writer’s interpretative pressure upon the material.
Aswany is not just against power and hierarchy, but also religion. In one story, The Kitchen Boy, he shows us an outstanding young doctor, Hisham, reduced to the status of kitchen attendant by his seniors so that he may suffer the same indignities that they did during their induction. Hisham’s troubles are all of man’s fashioning—they are the consequence of the crookedness, callousness and spite within society. Yet when he confides his troubles to his mother, she suggests that he perform daily a religious ritual that will ease his woes. Hisham reluctantly agrees.
Religion, in Aswany’s reading, is often like putting a blindfold over one’s eyes. It may be a refuge from injustice, but it also allows injustice to continue. Aswany’s narrations often feature quotations from the Quran that are used ironically, such as when a man is trying to smuggle some goods through customs and begins reciting the verse about “covering their eyes so they do not see”.
The other feature of Aswany’s writing is its frank sensuality, its love of pleasures both free and forbidden. “I drank of beauty until my thirst was quenched,” declares one of his protagonists, while another holds that “joy was a wild beast with vulgar features, an implacable urge lurking within everyone and everything in creation”. Such is the force of our instincts that they often overpower all propriety and reason, as when a man slips out of his father’s funeral ceremony to return to eating a dish of beans he had left behind when the news of the death came in.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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