Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This short story, which appeared in a collection entitled Al-Tanẓm al-sirri (1984; the secret organization), is told chronologically. As in Mahfouz’s other works, there is more narrative than dialogue. The story is brief and explicit, a skill that the author attributes to his having written many film scripts during his career. The dialogue emerges from the mouth or consciousness of the anonymous narrator with whom the author may well identify.

The context of this work, as with all of the writings of Mahfouz, is distinctly Egyptian. The Nobel Prize-winning author does not like to travel abroad. With one or two exceptions, all his stories are set in his hometown, most often in the familiar neighborhoods in which he has spent most of his life. This local focus and Mahfouz’s specifically Egyptian frame of reference may make it hard for some readers to relate to some of his works. For example, in “The Norwegian Rat,” readers need some geopolitical background to understand the speculations raised about the possible causes of the rodent invasion, ranging from an episode in the Arab-Israeli War to ecological changes caused by the construction of the Aswan High Dam located more than four hundred miles to the south.

However, none of this detracts from a story that proposes that even as commonplace a pest as the brown house rat—the Rattus norvegicus, often called the Norway rat—can bring consternation to a community and cause it to resolve to organize to deal with the physical and psychological threat. As usual in political contexts, Mahfouz is supportive of leadership and action to meet crises. In the story, “the estimable Mr. A. M.” and “our revered Governor” epitomize both.

The dry humor evident in this story about one of the many tribulations that Egyptians have had to face bespeaks of the latter’s habit of making fun of their circumstances. However, on this occasion, a frequently bungling government comes through with flying colors.