Good Times Are in the Past and the Future

Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria, Egypt

Cape Verde, with its Portugese name, is a small island country off the west coast of Africa. On Saturday I read that a singer from Cape Verde, named Cesaria Evora, had died. I was sad and struck to hear it, as I’ve loved her music for years. I have three or four CDs by Evora, and I had the good luck to see her in Philadelphia about ten years ago.

I also want to tell a story that I’ve told before, and there is no one here to stop me from telling this again. When I was touring Italy with students in 1997, I was walking down a street in Rome and on the other side of the street I saw a poster for an Evora concert. I got excited and ran over to get a closer look at the poster, to see when and where the concert was, as I was definitely going. On a closer view, I saw that she had performed a few days before, so I missed her until Philadelphia. Here’s a wonderful video of Evora. If you don’t yet know any African singers, she’s the one to start with.

I’ve also just finished reading a novel by a writer from a very different African country, Egypt. The novel is Miramar by Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988 (for a different book). The novel Miramar is set in Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast, in the 1960s.

I’ve read several other novels by Mahfouz, which were all in what might be called a “realistic” style, a detailed narrative moving forward in time, focused mostly on telling the story, and only relating events that could conceivably happen, as if we were somehow standing there watching things take place. That style became very popular in the 19th century, in novel after novel, in quite a few countries, and it is probably still the basic fiction style, because it works very well to tell a story.

The novel Miramar was first published in 1967, and in this book, Mahfouz works in a variation to the “realistic” style. The novel partly tells the same story from the point of view of several characters. In order to do this, Mahfouz partially repeats the same period of time, showing how the different characters experience it. It’s an interesting technique, though the book is more complex than simply repeating an incident several times, through different eyes.

The overlap of incidents to some extent is incidental. What happens more importantly is to get a look at the lives of the different characters, all of them residents of a boarding house named Miramar. The book is written entirely in first person but with a shift to a new character for each section, so that the “I” keeps changing. The characters come from a variety of backgrounds, young and old, country peasant and city intellectual. There is also—an important point for Mahfouz—a mix of political views, and the novel makes frequent reference to the two revolutions Egypt had had before 2011.

Politics was important to Naguib Mahfouz, a more bold approach than it might seem to us, given the oppressive regimes he lived under. He also lived in a country where religious extremism was nurtured by the very political oppression that colors his books. In 1994 a group of these vile faithful attacked Mahfouz and stabbed him in the neck. Although his health was affected, he lived another twelve years.

In the west, it might be hard to see what is in his novels that could provoke such an attack (though let’s keep in mind that every country is polluted by religious fanatics, including, very visibly, America). Part of Mahfouz’s sin, perhaps, is that he wrote about real people as they were, with a willingness to describe their desires and sins, lust and greed, profaneness and lack of faith. We can see all of these things in the characters living in the Miramar boarding house.

Although we follow four characters here very closely, from inside their own heads, they are not especially sympathetic. The narrative of an old man frames the story of three young men, and while the old man seems more or less removed from life at the time of the narration, the younger men are intensely involved in life, sexually, politically, romantically, and ambitiously. Perhaps by showing all three of the younger men so flawed that it’s hard to like them, Mahfouz is saying that to be fully engaged with life forces us to make choices that compromise the soul.

I also found it interesting that in the book, all three of the older characters continually reminisce about how good the times used to be, and now those good times are gone. The four younger characters all are looking ahead to the future, to a time that they hope will be better. No one believes the present is good.

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