Friday, 20 April 2012

Perils Of Possessiveness

In my defence, I did not write that title or standfirst. But the rest was all me. Not that it matters.

Maybe it was the psychological portraiture of the "mama's boy" that I didn't like, rather than the writing. The writing was fine.

Mama's boy
A prize-winning author gives us a sad sob story about a sad sack of a man

first published in The Star, 20 April 2012

I guess it's true what they say: classics, bestsellers and prize-winners are not for everybody.

“The Mirage” by Naguib Mahfouz
Struggling past three chapters of this book felt like hacking through a dense bamboo thicket. The narrative is noisy, and I couldn't bring myself to care about the characters or the problems they faced. Maybe writing this in the voice of an emotional mama's boy wasn't a good idea.

In this edition of The Mirage, translated from the original Arabic published in 1948, the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) channels the voice of Kamil Ru'ba, who was raised by his mum. His mother, a powerful presence in his life, is dead and he's taken up the pen to deal with his issues.

Even before his life's story begins, we get a sense of the emotionally intense and confused, selfish and immature person Kamil is. His behaviour throughout the novel emphasises that perception. The places and times in his life just melt into the background in the heat of his pain, his neuroses, and his disappointments. Kamil's Egypt barely exists.

Scarred by the abuse and broken promises of his drunkard father, Kamil's mum becomes overly protective of him. His sheltered upbringing, naturally, does not prepare him for life's disappointments and nasty turns. He can't make friends. He's a below average student. He can't be trusted to live on his own. On top of that, it seems as though he's inherited his father's love for drink and melodrama.

But not everything he does ends badly at first. Though he successfully courts and marries his sweetheart, the relationship sours due to "medical complications", and for the umpteenth time his world starts crumbling. Then he meets and begins an affair with a woman called Inayat but little changes – until tragedy strikes.

If it is Mahfouz's intention to embody this dislikeable character in his writing and subject us to his misery until our psyche buckles, the author has succeeded beyond measure. One fights an overwhelming urge to grab Kamil and shake him until he falls apart in one's hands. He's a flawed man, son, sibling and husband and he's candid about that.

And how he rambles! He can go on and on about his favourite bones of contention, chewing until they break into pieces. Even so, some of his rants could've benefited from better paragraphing. Every time I was faced with an over-20-line block of text, I was so tempted to skip – and I did. And yet, I don't feel I've missed much.

So I didn't get a "happy" storyline in The Mirage. No matter. Life isn't all sugar and spice, and it's to Mahfouz's credit that he manages to present such a convincing if perturbing portrait of this broken man. (Kudos also to the translators, whom I'm sure worked real hard to bring this novel into the Anglosphere.)

Even so, it is hard to read, and harder still to feel sorry for such a character – which might not be the point of the novel. While some will be annoyed, others who can identify parts of themselves with the troubled protagonist will surely be discomfited.

At the end, we are not sure if it is possible for this fellow, with so few redeeming qualities, to find any happiness that doesn't eventually waver and vanish like a mirage in the desert. Perhaps we're better off not knowing. Or am I missing the whole point of this sob story?

The Mirage
Naguib Mahfouz
Anchor (February 2012)
480 pages
ISBN: 978-0-307742582


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