Since Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz ("The Cairo Trilogy") won the Nobel Prize is 1988, a steady stream of his work has appeared in English...
by Naguib Mahfouz,
translated by Raymond Stock
The American University in Cairo Press/International
125 pp., $19.95
Since Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (“The Cairo Trilogy”) won the Nobel Prize is 1988, a steady stream of his work has appeared in English translation. For the last several years, the focus has been on catching up with his earlier fiction. But with “The Dreams” we have his most recent prose work — the first to appear since his near-fatal knife attack by an Islamist militant in 1994.
The book is literally what its title says: accounts of 104 dreams the 93-year-old author has had since the year 2000. These page-long pieces first appeared in Arabic in a Cairo women’s magazine between 2000 and 2003. There is no connecting narrative, and no central character other than the dreamer himself.
A reasonable reader might ask what holds the book together.
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One answer is Mahfouz’s lithe, transparent prose (cleanly translated by Raymond Stock, who also contributes an introduction providing much useful background to the book).
Another answer is: How often do you get to float around inside the subconscious of an Egyptian Nobel laureate?
What Mahfouz has given us here, as directly as he can, is a sense of immersion in a mind at the edge of life, a mind returning to its elemental instincts. Desire, paranoia, fear and nostalgia seize hold of the dreamer in an unpredictable manner. Mahfouz, unsurprisingly, repeatedly imagines he’s being followed or stalked (in one case in a motorboat chase that ends up at a Russian embassy dockside funeral). Even a dream of being in the hospital bristles with threat, when a nurse tells him “with intense composure, ‘How long I’ve waited to see you lying weak and helpless like this.’ “
Other dreams strike a lighter note. A long-dead teacher seeks out Mahfouz to give him corrections to lessons from decades earlier. Young women, fancied years ago, prove elusive as ever. Ordinary streets turn into literal circuses. A job offer in Yemen suddenly looks like a welcome escape, after Mahfouz’s dog develops an offputtingly human face.
Grimmer grotesqueries flourish here as well: A vision of suckling becomes a spectacle of graphic cannibalism in one dream. In another, the dreamer himself rains senseless blows on a neighborhood trash pile with his cane, opening up gaps in it from which men and women — “models of cleanliness, prestige, and respectability” — emerge.
“Each time one of them appeared, they jumped with terror of the rod in my hand. Following this,” the dream concludes, “I became utterly convinced that the sun would rise tomorrow over a world of greenery and pristine air.”
Mahfouz maintains an unruffled, even humorous voice in the face of these volatile dreamscapes. And while it wouldn’t do to overstate the point, one gets a sense in some of these dream transcriptions of being offered a fine, surreal filter through which to divine all the elements at play — both good and bad — in contemporary Egyptian society.
“The Dreams,” to be sure, is a minor addition to Mahfouz’s considerable body of work. But it’s a noteworthy one.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.