Amam al-‘Arsh [Before the Throne]
Taht al-Mazella [Under the Shelter]
Before he won the Nobel Prize in 1988, Naguib Mahfouz was known outside the Arab world to students of Arab or Middle Eastern studies largely as the author of picturesque stories about lower-middle-class Cairo life. But even to them he did not seem to have a style or perspective of his own, partly because the few translations available were very uneven in quality and partly because he did not (and still doesn’t) have one translator (and hence one voice) who made it a life’s project to keep producing Mahfouz’s prose masterpieces in English versions.
In 1980 I tried to interest a New York publisher who was then looking for “third world” books to publish in putting out several of the great writer’s works in first-rate translations, but after a little reflection the idea was turned down. When I inquired why, I was told (with no detectable irony) that Arabic was a controversial language. A few years later I had an amiable and, from my point of view, encouraging correspondence about him with Jacqueline Onassis, who was trying to decide whether to take him on; she then became one of the people responsible for bringing Mahfouz to Doubleday, which is where he now resides, albeit still in rather spotty versions that dribble out without much fanfare or notice. Rights to his English translations are held by the American University in Cairo Press, so poor Mahfouz, who seems to have sold them off without expecting that he would someday be a world-famous author, has no say in what has obviously been an unliterary, largely commercial enterprise without much artistic or linguistic coherence.
To Arab readers Mahfouz does in fact have a distinctive voice, which displays a remarkable mastery of language yet does not call attention to itself. But in English he sounds like each of his translators, most of whom (with one or two exceptions) are not stylists and, I am sorry to say, appear not to have completely understood what he is really about. I shall try to suggest in what follows that he has a decidedly catholic and, in a way, overbearing view of his country, and, like an emperor surveying his realm, he feels capable of summing up, judging, and shaping its long history and complex position as one of the world’s oldest, most fascinating and coveted prizes for conquerors like Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, as well as its own natives. In addition Mahfouz has the intellectual and literary means to convey them in a manner entirely his own—powerful, direct, subtle. Like his characters (who are always described right away, as soon as they appear), Mahfouz comes straight at you, immerses you in a thick narrative flow, then lets you swim in it, all the while directing the currents, eddies, and waves of his characters’ lives, Egypt’s his-tory under prime ministers like Saad Zaghloul and Mustapha el Nahas, and dozens of other details of political parties, family histories, and the like, with …