Review 1777: In the Eye of the Sun

Best of Ten!

Recently, I remembered liking Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, so I decided to see if she had written anything else. What I turned up was In the Eye of the Sun, which her Wikipedia page confusingly calls her debut novel, even though she wrote one earlier.

In the Eye of the Sun is the story of the maturing of a young Egyptian woman, told over a period of 13 years. The daughter of two university professors, Asya wants to get a Ph.D. in English literature and teach at Cairo University. The novel looks back to 1979 when she is studying for her General Certificate of Secondary Education before beginning at the university and follows her until shortly after she finishes her Ph.D.

Although the novel deals with many subjects—cultural collision, Near Eastern politics, family, sexuality among them—it primarily concerns Asya’s relationship with Saif, who eventually becomes her husband. Asya meets Saif early in her university career and falls madly in love with him. The two want to marry, but her parents insist that they wait until she graduates. They don’t even allow them to become engaged for a couple of years.

At first, their relationship is intense, even though it does not involve intercourse because Saif wants to wait. However, Asya feels him pulling away from her as soon as they are engaged. She has caught him in a few pointless lies, but she doesn’t challenge him with them. However, he stops wanting to discuss anything of substance. Asya does not attempt any kind of discussion of these issues, though, before they are married. Nor does she discuss them with anyone else.

At their marriage, things become even more complicated, because Asya finds sex so painful that after a few attempts Saif stops trying. They never fully consummate their marriage. Even when Asya begs him to try, Saif seems more content to treat her as a sort of doll, picking out clothes and buying jewelry for her. Their marriage becomes even more difficult when he takes a job in Syria while she goes to attend a university in Northern England. There, she finds the surroundings cold and uncongenial and her studies in linguistics difficult.

This novel is quite long, but it is involving and extremely honest. Although a primarily sympathetic character, Asya can be quite annoying in her personal contradictions, for she doggedly continues intellectual disagreements while seldom broaching personal issues. She is brilliant while being occasionally terribly neurotic. I strongly felt that this was an autobiographical novel. If so, Soueif’s honesty is extraordinary.

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Review 1665: Sugar Street

Sugar Street is the third book in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy and in many ways the weakest. Although it spends some time with Kamal, it goes on to the next generation and deals mostly with Kamal’s nephews.

The patriarch of the family, Ahmad Abdal-Jawad, although only in his early 60’s in 1935, has let his intemperate habits get the best of him and becomes more and more decrepit as the book goes on. We don’t see much of him or his wife, Amina.

Kamal has come to believe in nothing. He is an English teacher who writes difficult philosophical articles for a journal for no pay. His family urges him to marry, but he does not. He is not happy except in a few friendships with men he can exchange ideas with.

Aisha is a faded shadow of herself after the death of her husband and sons, so it is Khadiya’s and Yasin’s sons we follow for most of the novel as they get involved in politics. Abdal-Muni’m becomes a Muslim Nationalist, Ahmad a socialist, and Ridwan becomes involved with an important political sheikh in a way that seemed vaguely homosexual to me but perhaps wasn’t.

In any case, although you might think these different political alliances would provide more insight into the state of the country, the strangely formal and didactic conversations I mentioned in a review of the previous book assume too much knowledge for me and throw too many names around. On the other hand, what was missing from this novel were the intimate family relationships and strong individual characterizations. We never really get to know any of these nephews like we did the original brothers and sisters.

Finally, Kamal’s character is so mired in inaction that he brings every scene to a halt with his inner observations. When he finally sees the little sister of his boyhood love, Aïda, and fancies himself in love with her, first he creepily stalks her and then, finally, having won her attention, he backs off. Oh! I thought at first, something is going to happen! Not!

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Review 1634: Palace of Desire

The three books of Naguib Mafouz’s Cairo Trilogy are all named after streets in Cairo. The home of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is located on Palace Walk, the name of the previous book. His oldest son Yasid’s home is on the Palace of Desire, and desire is certainly a theme for this novel.

The novel is set five years after the last one, beginning in 1924. Since his middle son Fahmy’s death, Ahmad has stopped his nightly drinking and womanizing, but fairly soon in the novel he decides to go out with his friends again. Now a middle-aged man, he finds he has lost his confidence. Instead of flitting from woman to woman, he is soon spending a lot of money setting up his mistress, Zanuba, in a house boat.

Kamal, definitely a portrait of the writer himself, as I suspected in the last book, is now 17 and in love. He is entranced by Aïda, the sister of one of his school friends, who was raised in Paris. This girl belongs to a relatively aristocratic family, and Kamal seems to have no hope but just wants to worship her.

Yasid, having been divorced by his wife in the first book, now decides to marry Maryam, the girl from next door that his brother Fahmy wanted to marry. Also a terrible womanizer, Yasid only decides to marry her because she won’t sleep with him. His choice causes some family problems. His mother Amina and his sisters have broken with her because they think she slighted Fahmy by becoming acquainted with an English officer after Fahmy’s father refused to let him marry her. They also think Yasin should leave alone the girl Fahmy loved. His father cannot admit that he doesn’t approve because he himself had an affair with Maryam’s mother, Bahija.

So, Yasin must go to ask for Maryam’s hand himself instead of sending a relative. When he does, he complicates matters more by starting an affair with Bahija. At this point, I almost wondered if I was reading a farce except that Mahfouz is so deadpan serious.

I wasn’t sure how much I liked Palace Walk, but I liked Palace of Desire less. For one thing, Mahfouz doesn’t spend much time with Kamal’s sisters, Aisha and Adijah. But frankly, I found Kemal’s obsessions and long internal dialogues tedious. Either he’s rhapsodizing about Aïda, whom he seriously doesn’t want to be a real girl, or he’s philosophizing about some other subject. In Mahfouz’s attempts at realism, he frequently interjects a character’s thoughts into the middle of a conversation to show what the character is really thinking. When overused, this technique slows things down too much. Finally, Kamal’s conversations with his friends seem terribly formal and artificial, and the other characters’ flirtacious and joking comments seem clumsy and crude, but this just might be a cultural difference. I was most bothered by Kamal’s interactions with Aïda. Without saying too much about what happens, I’ll just say that he comes off as a bit of an idiot and a prig.

I still plan to read the third novel, Sugar Street, but I hope to like it better.

The New York Times reviewer comments that Mafouz essentially invented the Egyptian novel form with reference to Arabic poetry. I can see that in some of Kamal’s musings, but I don’t have much patience for it.

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Review 1563: #1956 Club! Palace Walk

I experienced quite a bit of culture shock reading Palace Walk, which made me realize that although I have read books set in Egypt about Egyptians, all but one were written by Western writers, and that one, Map of Love, was much more modern. Palace Walk is about Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family, and I believe it’s Mahfouz’s own family thinly disguised.

The novel is the first of three in Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. It begins with al-Jawad’s wife, Amira, getting up at midnight to help her husband get ready for bed after his usual night of carousing and womanizing. Although her husband is a good friend and convivial participant in nightly drinking bouts, at home he is an angry tyrant to his wife and children. I found it interesting that although he has the reputation of a righteous and observant man, no one seems to think his drinking and womanizing make him a hypocrite.

Mahfouz was a writer in the Realism school and as such explores both the good and bad facets of his characters’ personalities (although it sometimes seems like Realists concentrate on the gritty). The novel develops slowly, introducing us to al-Jawad, Amina, and his five children—Yasin, a government clerk who immerses himself in sensuality like his father but with less control; Fahmy, a university student who is serious and ardent; Khadiya, the older, sharp-tongued daughter; Aisha, the younger, beautiful daughter; and Kamal, a schoolboy who may be Mahfouz’s alter ego.

Beginning in 1917 near the end of World War I, the novel at first focuses on purely family concerns such as Fahmy’s desire to be affianced to Maryam, the neighbor girl; Aisha’s receipt of an offer of marriage before Khadiya’s, when their father has decreed that the younger girl will not be married before the older; and Yasin’s mother getting married again, which Yasin thinks is obscene, since she has been married several times. In these domestic incidents, the family constantly faces their father’s anger and intransigence. Mahfouz frequently tells us of his good points although they are not often demonstrated. In fact, there is a lot of explanation going on about the thinking and characters of the family members, some of it quite repetitive.

As the novel develops, external events become more important, especially the Arab Revolution of 1919 against the protectorate of the British. This more outward view makes the second half of the novel move along more quickly.

Certainly, al-Jawad’s actions toward his wife and children are shocking, and Mahfouz makes clear that he is stricter than most others by the comments of al-Jawad’s friends. Yet, it is also clear that no one would interfere in his treatment of his family, since it is his right to behave as he wishes. As an example of some of the things he does, Amina, who has only left the house a few times in 23 years of marriage, takes the opportunity of her husband’s absence on a business trip to visit a nearby mosque. Because Kamal guides her out of her route so that he can visit a pastry shop, she becomes disoriented and faint and is hit by a car. After she recovers, her husband banishes her from the house for leaving it without asking him (and believe me, he would have said no).

His son Yasin, the leaf not falling far from the tree, thinks later in the book when his wife is not happy with his nights out that it is the husband’s right to do anything he wants and the wife’s to obey. Nice.

The trilogy is supposed to be about the effect the father’s tyranny has on his family. I read it for the 1956 Club, and I suppose I will go ahead and read the other two novels. It certainly provides an intimate look into family life and customs in early 20th century Egypt.

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Review 1503: The Battle Lost and Won

The second novel in Manning’s Levant Trilogy, The Battle Lost and Won begins one day after The Danger Tree ended. Simon Boulderstone continues his leave after finding out that his brother Hugo has been killed. He tags along with Harriet and her friends for an evening in Cairo, but when he hears that the big push is coming up, he returns to his unit hoping to be in on the action.

This book continues the pattern of its predecessor by alternating the points of view of Harriet and Simon. Simon becomes more closely involved in the second battle of El Alamein while Harriet becomes more frustrated with her husband Guy. As usual, Guy occupies all his time with projects and saves none for her, nor does he agree to anything she asks for. He is generous with anyone but her. Without any job or other occupation, she gets dragged into the love lives of her flatmates Angela and Edwina.

Like many middle novels, this one does not have its own climax but works its way to the final volume. Still, I am interested to see what happens to Guy and Harriet, and to some extent, Simon.

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Review 1498: The Danger Tree

The Danger Tree is the first volume of The Levant Trilogy, the second half of Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War. It begins with the adventures of a new character, Simon Boulderstone, a subaltern in the army who has missed his transport to his unit in Egypt. During the course of a day in Cairo, he meets Harriet Pringle, who seems at first as though she is going to be a minor character.

However, the book alternates chapters between Simon’s experiences in the desert and Harriet and Guy Pringle’s in Cairo and Alexandria. The last book of the Balkan Trilogy left the Pringles in Cairo after they fled Athens. It’s a year later. When they arrived in Cairo, Guy found Colin Gracey, his nemesis from Athens, in charge of the Organization, for which Guy works. Gracey is neglectful of his position, a characteristic that Guy despises, and has gone off traveling, so Guy has trouble meeting with him to ask about a position. Gracey has again employed the unqualified Dubedat and Toby Lush while ignoring the very qualified Guy.

Guy stupidly then offends Gracey by writing a limerick about him, which he hears of. As a result, Guy is finally posted to an unimportant school in Alexandria nearer to the front, and Harriet is stuck in Cairo living in one room in a pension and working for the American embassy.

The focus of Harriet’s portion of the book is the uncertainty in Cairo, as the Europeans wait for an attack from Rommel. For Simon’s section, it is the confusion he finds at the front.

This book made an interesting start to the second trilogy. I’m happy to follow Guy and Harriet a while longer as they make their way through World War II.

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Review 1479: Funeral Games

It may surprise some readers that (spoiler!) Alexander the Great dies at the end of the second book in Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy. What, then, could the third book be about? Actually, I found it the most interesting of the three novels, as it deals with the intrigues and battles for power over his empire after his death.

Alexander died leaving no named heir and three unlikely possibilities—his half-witted half brother, Arridaios, and two unborn children by Roxane, the vicious daughter of a Baktrian hilltop chief, and Stateira, a Persian princess. Stateira was living with her grandmother, but before Stateira can find out about Alexander’s death, Roxane writes a summons purporting to be from him. When she and her sister arrive, Roxane poisons them.

This act of treachery is the first of many, as Alexander’s generals and surviving relatives struggle for power. His sister, Kleopatra, makes a play for power through marriage to one of the generals. His half-sister, Euridike, has been betrothed by Alexander to Arridaios. He is used as a pawn by various regents trying to grab power, but the downfall of Euridike and Arridaios comes when Olympias, Alexander’s mother, whom he always kept way from power, takes them prisoner.

The book follows Alexander’s legacy—what happens when the empire he reigned is taken by ordinary people. The best off of his former generals becomes Ptolemy, who sensibly retires to Egypt to form the Ptolemaic dynasty and writes a book about Alexander’s life.

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Day 1169: A Treacherous Curse

Cover for A Treacherous CurseA Treacherous Curse is the third Veronica Speedwell novel by Deanna Raybourn. I don’t think much is lost in reading the novel out of order. Background information is provided as you go.

Veronica Speedwell is apparently a woman well ahead of her time. She is a scientist and a feminist who believes in free sex. She wears trousers and picks locks. She is also the illegitimate daughter of the Prince of Wales. Is she a very likely character for 1888? Not so much.

Veronica and her professional partner, Stoker, are working with a collection of artifacts when they begin hearing about a curse on the Tiverton expedition to Egypt. Soon, the news of the expedition affects Stoker, whose wife deserted him for John de Morgan, a member of the expedition. De Morgan and his wife left the expedition, apparently with the diadem, one of its most important finds. His wife has returned to her parents, but de Morgan is nowhere to be found.

The police want to question Stoker about de Morgan, because their enmity is well known. The story has reopened all the rumors of Stoker’s disastrous expedition to the Amazon, where he was left for dead by his wife and de Morgan, and the lies they told about his relations with his wife. So, Stoker decides he must find de Morgan to clear his name. Any notion that he is going to do this without Veronica’s assistance, he must speedily dismiss.

Concerned parties are the Tivertons and their assistant, Mr. Fairbrother, and Caroline de Morgan. Stoker and Veronica begin looking into the incident, but they can find no trace of de Morgan beyond his landing in Dover. Oddly, though, apparitions of the god Anubis, which haunted the Tiverton expedition, have now relocated to London.

For some time, I followed Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series, a mashup of the mystery and romance genres. I tired of the series because of the cliché of the couple always arguing about the wife taking part in the investigation. Apparently, Raybourn has decided to hold the couple of Stoker and Veronica apart indefinitely, maybe hoping to avoid this problem.

link to NetgalleyBut I don’t like Veronica nearly as well as I did Lady Julia, and there is something about the breezy, sometimes slightly racy narration that I find irritating. Too many young men are stripping to the waist for no apparent reason, for one thing, in a time that was much more modest than our own. As I mentioned before, I find Veronica not very believable for the time period.

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Day 1162: Classics Club Spin! Letters from Egypt

Cover for Letters from EgyptLetters from Egypt is the book I drew for the latest Classics Club spin! A book like this one is hard for me to evaluate. Lucie Duff Gordon was an English gentlewoman suffering from consumption who spent the last seven years of her life in Egypt, hoping the climate would help her. The book of her letters is heralded as a first to deal with the Egyptian people rather than the scenery and monuments. She was by all accounts beloved by the people she lived among in Luxor from 1862 to 1869.

I try to judge books as best I can by the standards of their own time, but sometimes with this book that was a struggle for me. Duff Gordon is known for being kind to the people she met, particularly the Arab fellaheen, who by all accounts were the despised of Egypt. Certainly, she was loved by them and is careful to follow their customs, but she does patronize them in just about every word of her letters. She also takes pleasure in telling stories about how much they love her and what courtesies they exchanged. She adopts their customs and learns to speak Arabic, all very laudable. However, it seems to me that she takes their part to the point of perversity, for example, sprinkling Arabic words into her letters to friends and so participating in their customs that she speaks casually of such things as buying slaves (for herself), always for their own good, thirty years after England outlawed slavery. Further, she favors the Arabs by putting down other groups, like the Copts, the Jews (even though she meets hardly any), and some of the Turks but not all, even though the Turks would seem to be to blame for the dire state of the country.

If you are feeling politically correct, you may not appreciate her frequent use of the N word, and her constant mention of the color of the various people she meets, although that is clearly a difference in the standards of the time.

The book does have descriptions of various ceremonies and customs, which are interesting. And Duff Gordon’s behavior toward the people was clearly better than that of most “Franks.” Another slight issue is that she tends to use Arabic and Egyptian words without always explaining what they mean, which can be confusing.

I want to compare this book to West with the Night, which was written 90 years later. Beryl Markham was raised with Masai playmates in what was British East Africa. Never does she treat her native friends condescendingly. Not only that, but her book provides a better sense of the landscape and society of Africa, although admittedly more oriented toward the European. Another contrast is Tales from the Queen of the Desert, in which Gertrude Bell ventures into even more remote corners of the Arab world while not once patronizing anyone.

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Day 865: Arctic Summer

Cover for Arctic SummerFrom its description, I thought that Arctic Summer might be one of the most interesting books I’m reading from the Walter Scott Prize list. It is described as a fictional biography of E. M. Forster, particularly leading up to his publication of A Passage to India.

That is certainly the time period the novel covers, and A Passage to India is one of its preoccupations. But the novel spends most of its time on Forster’s obsession with his homosexuality and his desire for sexual experience. As I’m not all that interested in reading about anyone’s obsession with sexuality, this novel was not the best fit for me.

The novel begins in 1912 on Forster’s first trip to India. While he is there, he will visit a good friend, Masood, and he has hopes that his life will open up, particularly in regard to sex. At the age of 33, he is still a virgin, his fear of disgrace holding him back from expressing his sexuality at home. Perhaps in India he will have an experience, maybe with Masood, whom he loves.

Unfortunately, Forster, who goes by Morgan, has a tendency to fall in love with heterosexual men and prefers men from a lower class, so nothing quite works out the way he wishes. Even when he finally has some encounters, years later, what he is actually looking for is love, which he never finds. The novel follows him during the long gestation of his novel about India, back to England, to Alexandria during World War I, and back to India again. During this time, his most significant relationships are with two friends who do not return his feelings.

The novel is extremely well written, and Galgut deeply characterizes Morgan, if not the other characters. It did make me wonder if any person could be so relentlessly focused on sex, although of course he is also lonely. It also made me wonder how, if he really felt this unrelenting focus, he ever got anything written. Certainly this novel makes you feel for Forster—he was a sad man.

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