Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chicago On The Nile

This appeared in the latest TimeOut Mumbai.

CHICAGO Alaa Al Aswany

“I am an American, Chicago-born,” said Bellow’s Augie March in his novel’s memorable opening sentence. Well, Alaa Al Aswany’s new novel is peopled by Egyptians, Chicago-bred, most of whom are enrolled in the University of Illinois’ medical department. The large cast of characters allows the author to create a microcosm of Egyptian society, much as in his earlier The Yacoubian Building. Of course, the postcolonial difference here is that these are Egyptians alternately embracing and fighting off the influence of America.

There’s the conservative Shymaa, conflicted between the desires of the body and the strictures of her upbringing; the brilliant but repressed Tariq; the radical Nazi; and the hypocritical Ahmed, among other students and professors, all of whom, in classic fashion, face conflicts that have the potential to change them forever. Most of the tales end on a pessimistic note, though the last section, dealing with the fallout of the Egyptian president’s visit to the US, skirts close to burlesque.

The narration is lordly and omniscient in standard 19th century style – barring one first-person tale -- and despite slabs of Chicago history being offered up every now and again, the city doesn’t really come alive as a backdrop to the characters. The dialogue is frequently stilted (as are the scenes of sex) and these, coupled with the author’s penchant of closing chapters on neat little suspenseful highs, make Chicago an uneven read.

What tips the scales in the novel’s favour, however, is that the varied backgrounds and attitudes of the characters, and their reactions to the predicaments they face, do evoke a sense of the travails of the post-Nasser generation. This, along with storytelling vigour and critique of authoritarianism, make Chicago rise above its weaknesses.

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