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….
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. 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 history under prime ministers like Saad Zaghlul and Mustafa El-Nahhas, and dozens of other details of political parties, family histories, and the like, with extraordinary skill. Realism, yes, but something else as well: a vision that aspires to a sort of all-encompassing view not unlike Dante’s in its twinning of earthly actuality with the eternal, but without the Christianity.
Born in 1911, between 1939 and 1944 Mahfouz published three, as yet untranslated, novels about ancient Egypt while still an employee at the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments). He also translated James Baikie’s book Ancient Egypt before undertaking his chronicles of modern Cairo in Khan Al-Khalili, which appeared in 1945. This period culminated in 1956 and 1957 with the appearance of his superb Cairo Trilogy. These novels were in effect a summary of modern Egyptian life during the first half of the twentieth century….
To have taken history not only seriously but also literally is the central achievement of Mahfouz’s work and, as with Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn, one gets the measure of his literary personality by the sheer audacity and even the overreaching arrogance of his scope. To articulate large swathes of Egypt’s history on behalf of that history, and to feel himself capable of presenting its citizens for scrutiny as its representatives: this sort of ambition is rarely seen in contemporary writers….