Thursday, January 27, 2000

The Harafish

by Naguib Mahfouz
translated by Catherine Cobham

The sprawling saga of a Cairo family, the al-Nagis, starting with the first and greatest, who rose from a foundling into a benevolent clan chief who fought for the people (the harafish), and continuing for a dozen generations.  After the first, however, the Nagis sink gradually into vice, oppression and madness; lust for power makes them rue the old days, while it precludes them from reconstructing them.

This is a confusing but rich novel.  The number of minor characters overwhelms you, but the major characters are vivid; Mahfouz shows great talent in creating so many discrete personalities.  Parts of the novel are beyond subtle: ideas and plans are barely hinted at, so the reader must interpolate a lot.  The end is rather startling – almost simplistic in its moral, and like a fairy tale in its complete resolution (the monastery doors, which have remained closed throughout the book, open when the final Nagi rouses the harafish to a kind of self-rule).  I’m not sure what to make of that.

 four stars