01 March 2019

In a Blue Haze

Adrift on the Nile
Naguib Mahfouz
Anchor, 1994
Arabic original pub. 1966
176 pages

I picked up this slight book for only $1 at a used book sale somewhere. Mahfouz is a Nobel Prize winner and I've wanted to read some of his work, so it seemed like a perfect chance to dip a toe into modern Egyptian fiction. And at least one reviewer wrote that it was a good introduction to Mahfouz.

Very little actually happens until the closing chapters. The bulk of the book consists of a group of thirtysomething friends in Cairo sitting around a water pipe smoking a mixture of tobacco and kif (marijuana). The friends have long conversations, some coherent some not, about politics, the meaning of life, the absurd, and their lives in 1960s Egypt.


The main character is Anis, who rents the houseboat on the Nile where they convene every night for their smoking, talking, flirting, and philosophizing. He is always under the influence of the kif, even at his boring government office job, and we see a lot of the story through his narcotic daze. It's a stream-of-consciousness or rather stream-of-stoned-consciousness style that can get confusing because the narration switches from that back to the omniscient narrator. Much of his internal dialogue drops hints that he is well-read in classical literature and mythology. He even hallucinates a whale, which might be Moby Dick. At the end an incident happens which leads to the breakup of the group. As the book ends, Anis is drifting off into his own hazy world once again.

I was quite surprised by this book. I wasn't expecting something so absurdist and full of druggies talking nonsense. It sort of gave me a flashback to the late 60s in the US; I knew people who did the identical thing in college, minus the water pipe and the houseboat. Reading it got a bit tedious after a while; luckily it's short. But it was enlightening that people so far away were simultaneously having the same sort of reactions to the world as college students in the US. Since so much of the book is dialogue, I could see this staged as a play, with soliloquies on the side by Anis, ala Shakespeare.

One surprising fact I learned: they have evergreen trees in Cairo! I guess I thought they only had palm trees.

Mahfouz has written in many different styles and formats, with much of it translated into English. Will I read more Mahfouz? Yes. I also scored a book of his short stories for $1, and I plan on reading that one.  As for his many novels, I will have to do some research in the reviews and find one that sounds appealing.

I enjoy reading books in translation because you usually get different perspectives on things. Although sometimes you are surprised and find more similarities than you imagined. This is my entry for the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge, in the Classic Novella category.

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