Naguib Mahfouz Essay - Critical Essays

Naguib Mahfouz Short Fiction Analysis

In his fiction, Naguib Mahfouz has assumed the role of chronicler and conscience of Egypt in the twentieth century. Since, however, many of his works examine issues that are common to all humanity, they are timeless and of universal interest. Mahfouz’s works have consistently expressed his interest in the role of women in society. His fiction suggests that he has generally been supportive of women exerting their personal choice. Even women who become prostitutes are viewed with equanimity and understanding, if not admiration.

Mahfouz is perhaps the best-known Arab fiction writer in the Anglophone world. Over a period of half a century he has given voice to the hopes and frustrations of his nation. Through his fiction, Egyptian and Arab-Islamic cultural heritage has become accessible to Westerners. His works illustrate the position of women in his culture, and clarify the changes and disruptions that Western ideas and culture have brought to individuals and society as a whole in Egypt.

Hams al-junn

Mahfouz is said to have published his first short story in an obscure Cairo journal, Al-Siyasa, in July, 1932. This was followed by a regular production in several Egyptian journals, both literary and popular. These early stories number approximately eighty, of which over twenty have been republished in a collection entitled Hams al-junn. They frequently present situations in which sadness results from faults of character and immorality or from ill fortune. The situations are often domestic and the problems prosaic, such as marital infidelity or a family’s descent into poverty through unemployment or the death of the wage earner.

These stories are generally didactic and sentimental and reflect the influence of the works of the then hugely popular Sheikh Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti; this author’s genius for archaic, sonorous, and rhythmic prose Mahfouz was, however, unable to match. Other early stories present flat and static character sketches of the lives and personalities of curious characters; these are reminiscent of the fiction of Mahmud Taymur, a prominent Egyptian writer who was himself a devotee of Guy de Maupassant. Often with characters and situations that are unconvincing and lack development, these works nevertheless suggest the pessimism and high seriousness that have characterized Mahfouz’s literary production.

“God’s World”

The short stories of the late 1930’s and 1940’s, like the novels, still largely concern themselves with the issues and dilemmas that affect the poor, the bureaucracy, and the petit bourgeois. They emphasize the negative aspects of Egypt’s class structure and demonstrate how the struggle for survival and advancement entails loss of mortality and personal happiness. They suggest a general compassion for the underprivileged and a disapproval of the values of his compatriots who enjoy wealth and power.

The whimsical “Duny Allh” (“God’s World”), in the collection Duny Allh, and available in various English translations, centers sympathetically on an aging man, an impoverished messenger in a department of the bureaucracy, who, having stolen the salaries of his colleagues, absconds to Alexandria with a young woman. Though his idyllic vacation ends with her rejection of him and his capture by the police, the thief has no cause for regret since he has achieved one brief period of happiness in an otherwise dismal life.

Mahfouz’s writings of the 1950’s and 1960’s became increasingly complex in their structure and style and more political and obscure in their themes. As was the case with other Egyptian writers, such as Yusuf Idris, and Ihsan ‘Abd al-Quddus, his works now contained subtle expressions of discontent at the repressive nature of the rule of the country’s dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had led an army coup in 1952 that had overthrown the monarchy. While viewed as generally benevolent and reformist, the regime brooked no criticism from its citizenry, and brief jail sentences were served by many intellectuals whose loyalty became suspect. Caution and obfuscation were clearly necessary to escape notice or defy interpretation by the “defenders of the revolution.” The stories are therefore metaphorical and the criticisms oblique, though some do lend themselves to easy equational interpretation.

“Sa’iq al-qitar”

For example, his “Sa’iq al-qitar” (in the...

(The entire section is 1835 words.)