Email this review


Americans accustomed to the histrionic self-display of celebrity memoirs and the self-involved, studied impressionism of writers' self-portraits are likely to find Nobel laureate Mahfouz's fragmentary approach to autobiography charmingly novel. In fact, Mahfouz's volume would be unrecognizable as autobiography to Western readers if it weren't for its title. Instead of presenting a straightforward narrative about his family in Cairo, his philosophical studies, his career in the civil service, and his 34 novels (Children of the Alley, 1996, etc.), Mahfouz collects 200 terse memories, parables, fictions, and fugitive moments, some narrated in the first person, some in the third, most no more than a few sentences long. Many of them read like distillations of the longer fables in Arabian Nights and Days (1995). A nine-month-old fetus worries about the dim prospect of an afterlife. A billiard player, refusing a game, says he prefers to play alone as others watch him, even though everyone else in the parlor is asleep. A man bothered by a commotion in the street stops trying to quiet the carousers when he suddenly sees them "in God's good time, as they hurried toward the grave." An old man and his wife recall how "they were brought together by love 30 years ago, then it had abandoned them along with the rest of their expectations." The majority of the characters here pass briefly and are gone, hustling off on their errands. Only one figure abides: Sheik Abd-Rabih al Ta'ih, whose Sufi-tinged apothegms on time and age, the ripeness of memory, the everlasting pursuit of love, and the shaping forces of death and faith ("There is no one more foolish than the foolish believer, except for the foolish unbeliever") dominate the last third of the book. Readers looking for conventional revelations about the famously reticent Mahfouz will come away disappointed. For those more patient, the novelist offers a haunting commonplace book of tranquil wisdom.
Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-385-48555-7
Page count: 144pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1996


FictionAKHENATEN by Naguib Mahfouz
by Naguib Mahfouz
FictionCHILDREN OF THE ALLEY by Naguib Mahfouz
by Naguib Mahfouz
FictionARABIAN NIGHTS AND DAYS by Naguib Mahfouz
by Naguib Mahfouz