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Δευτέρα, 21 Μαΐου 2007

CAIRO TRILOGY: SUGAR STREET- BY NAGUIB MAHFOUZ

Sugar Street is the final volume in The Cairo Trilogy, though it does not really bring the story to a close. One generation -- the father and mother that were the dominant figures at the beginning of the family saga -- is done for, but the most radical changes seem still to come, with the book closing with the political upheavals of 1944.Sugar Street begins in 1935, some eight years after the end of the previous volume, Palace of Desire. Over that span a new generation has grown up, and the narrative shifts its focus even farther from the once-dominant father-figure, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. His daughter Khadija's children, Abd al-Muni'm and Ahmad, are soon ready to decide what to do with their lives (choosing very different paths), as is Yasin's son Ridwan (the favourite of his grandfather, though it turns out he isn't quite as fond of the ladies as either grandpa al-Sayyid Ahmad or Yasin were). Only Yasin's daughter, Karima, eight years old when the book begins, takes a while longer to grow into her role.Missing from the picture are Aisha's husband and sons, who all died of typhus. Despite the many years that have passsed since then, it has left Aisha a shell of her former self, with only her beautiful daughter Na'ima to hold onto, "the only bright hope on otherwise gloomy horizons.The house on Palace Walk is now a very different place than the lively home it had been decades earlier. Youngest son Kamal observes:
It was sad to watch a family age. It was hard to see his father, who had been so forceful and mighty, grow weak. His mother was wasting away and disappearing into old age. He was having to witness Aisha's disintegration and downfall. The atmosphere of the house was charged with misery and death.Kamal isn't exactly a jolly presence either. Even now, years later, he still can't get over his great lost love, Aïda. After that disappointment, "love had been replaced by thought, which had greedily devoured his life." Among the great disappointments for the family is that Kamal won't get married. Eventually, he does consider it, in a nice twist, when he stumbles across Aïda's younger sister, with whom he had played when she was a small girl. His encounters with his past are among the best scenes of the novel, perhaps finally allowing him to free himself from any lingering romantic and nostalgic delusions. Among the central characters in this volume is Ahmad, who disappoints his family (or at least his mother, Khadija) by eventually becoming a journalist. Unlike Kamal, who also writes and publishes extensively, but on airy subjects ("he's a writer who rambles through the wilderness of metaphysics", one of Ahmad's colleagues complains), Ahmad is interested in politics and real-life issues. He is a Marxist -- and a stark contrast to his brother, Abd al-Muni'm, a devoted Muslim who becomes active in the Muslim Brethren. Each marries as dictated by their personal philosophies: Ahmad marries the woman at work he admires, who is committed to the same principles he is (shocking his family by marring a woman who works for a living), while Abd al-Muni'm leaps into marriage because he can't accept taking the immoral route of a sexual outlet not hallowed by marriage.Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is much less of a figure in this volume, sickly, retired, ultimately confined to his room. His friends all pass away, and eventually he does too, the old times completely superseded. Things change so quickly that even Kamal soon strikes one as part of the old tradition. Tellingly, he is largely stuck in a rut, unlikely to advance much farther in the bureaucracy (as is also the case for Yasin, though in his case it is more understandable, since it is unimaginable that he a competent professional), while, for example, Yasin's son Ridwan quickly finds friends in high places and the influence to go with it. They are two of the shaky pillars of Egyptian society of the time: Kamal, lost in thought, too uninterested in real life, and Ridwan, who owes almost all he has not to his talents or abilities but to the homosexual coterie he's part of. Abd al-Muni'm and Ahmad -- "the Believer and the apostate", as their father Ibrahim Shawkat calls them -- are the two sturdier and more interesting pillars, though Mahfouz is careful not to delve too closely into their Marxist and Islamic activities. Not surprisingly, it is they who are seen as the greater threat, and the final sections of the novel deal with their arrests. Sugar Street is the shortest of the novels in the trilogy, despite covering the longest span. It moves at a faster pace, and Mahfouz no longer lingers as carefully over details. Lost in all this are some of the individual stories, as many of the family-members' lives are only glimpsed occasionally: it's a shame, because he has created a rich cast of characters, almost each one of whose lives one would like to hear more about. The uncertain focus -- mainly on Kamal, but diverted elsewhere for considerable stretches -- is somewhat unfortunate, but understandable (as the book would otherwise explode out of all proportions), and Mahfouz does convey the changing times well enough with this approach. The trilogy ends here, and yet it is a time of new beginnings; among the regrets in closing the book is that there is no continuation. Mahofuz does round things off: the family first introduced in Palace Walk no longer exists, its two mainstays dead, but it is only one chapter for a family marked always by a strong sense of continuity, which does not allow for abrupt ends.

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