Sunday, February 18, 2007

On Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building

This piece appears today in the Sunday Telegraph.

One of the great pleasures of the realist novel as told in the omniscient third person is the esteem in which it holds the reader. Instead of being a guest standing unremarked at the threshold, we are welcomed in and given the best seat in the house. From this position, we have a panoramic view of the lives of characters in disparate orbits, and share the narrator's privilege of being able to divine the truth of their lives and relationships better than they can themselves. This style of storytelling is unfashionable nowadays, but Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building is a reminder of its attractions.

An imposing 10-storey edifice in downtown Cairo, the Yacoubian Building embodies Egyptian society in microcosm, housing in its plush apartments members of the old aristocratic class, the nouveau riche, and the army, and in the rented-out servant's quarters on its roof a mass of workers and tradesmen with small lives and starry eyes.

This arrangement represents in inverted form the entrenched hierarchies of the world they live in, in which the rich oppress the poor and influence trumps merit - where, in the bitter words of one character, "money begets money and poverty begets poverty".

So, at the same time as the ageing sensualist Zaki el Dessouki is planning his latest seduction and the unscrupulous businessman Hagg Azzam is rigging his entry into parliament, we see the ambitious student Taha el Shazli being denied entry into the police force because he is the son of a gatekeeper, and his childhood sweetheart Busayna facing the predations of her employer on her first job. Al Aswany's achievement is in showing how several forces work to moderate or even reverse these inequities.

There is time, which runs at the same speed for both rich and poor and eventually enfeebles even the strongest; there is militant religion, which rouses and unites the disenchanted; and above all there is bodily desire, "deliciously insistent" and maddening by turns, the source of both weakness and power.

The many languorous descriptions in The Yacoubian Building of the pleasures of the flesh, and the subtly ironic renditions of religious rhetoric, might be taken as evidence that the author too is a sensualist, prizing the good things of this life over those of the one after (we are told only that he is a dentist). A bestseller in the Arabic world, The Yacoubian Building is well served by Humphrey Davies's elegant translation.

A short interview with Alaa Al Aswany is here, and a long profile of him by Stephanie Merritt in the Observer here.

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