Flight from Egypt

Chicago by Alaa al Aswany

Books Literature Middle East

Comedy is easy, tragedy easier still. A narrative that ends with the good happily rewarded and the bad satisfactorily punished satisfies one of our instincts. A story that ends with the utter bleakness of nobility crushed chimes with another of our appetites – the need to be put through the emotional wringer.

What is altogether harder is to sustain a story that is closer to the reality of our lives – a tangle of disappointments, disenchantments, fugitive moments of happiness and hope found in humour and resilience.

It’s the novels that succeed in carrying off such a melding of narratives which count as the greatest works of fiction. The realist -novel, which captures human nature in all its agonised complexity and captures the life of a community in all its contradictory richness, is the summit of fictional writing. In the very best example of the genre, George Eliot’s –Middlemarch, we have nobility thwarted, stubborn wilfulness leading individuals astray and happiness coming at a painfully high price.

Alaa al Aswany has many of the virtues of good old-fashioned realist novelists. And they were all on display in his breakthrough book, The Yacoubian Building. The interconnected lives of the inhabitants of one Cairo apartment block gave al Aswany the opportunity to build up an ensemble portrait of modern Egypt. An attractive and humane book, The Yacoubian Building was true to the spirit of Eliot. The author’s gift of imaginative sympathy allowed us to enter the lives of a cast of characters, from ageing rakes through to young Islamist radicals, with a proper measure of understanding and carefully calibrated empathy. The book, like the best realist fiction, also had a political message at its heart. The central villain of the work is the Egyptian political system – the backwardness, misery and violence which blight the characters’ lives spring from the failure of a great nation to modernise and, crucially, to democratise.

The failure of Egypt’s political leadership to provide a home that is anywhere near being human and attractive is also a central theme of Chicago. It charts the experience of exiles – both those who have left Egypt for the promise of America as well as those who are in internal exile from an America to which they no longer feel they can belong – and the horrors of what they are fleeing from are powerfully conveyed.

The sadistic nature of police repression in Egypt is captured in the character of the spook Safwat Shakir; the terrible mix of toady-ing and bullying that marks every ambitious apparatchik in a one-party state is brought to life in all its ugly glory in the character of Dr Ahmad Danana, and the vivid reality of Middle Eastern autocracy is caught in one particularly telling passage, which introduces in all his waxen glory the Egyptian state president.

But while Chicago picks up where The -Yacoubian Building left off in its indictment of modern Egypt, it is an altogether less -uplifting read. This is an account of flight from Egypt that does not lead to The Promised Land.

When we first meet most of our exiles, they are either successful doctors and academics, or students en route to professional success. As the novel develops, however, we see how these exiles are trapped in relationships that have lost their enchantment. America’s promise has become tainted, and the forces that sowed unhappiness in Middlemarch – a hopelessly idealistic attitude towards love, an idealism that takes insufficient account of human frailty, an inability to -escape mistakes from long ago – all ensnare the characters.

In different ways, all the central characters are left feeling somehow diminished and guilty for having let Egypt down by abandoning it. The theme of abandonment, of responsibilities towards others improperly discharged, of ambition overtaking altruism, permeates the latter half of the book. But instead of these disappointments being rendered in a subtle, nuanced and controlled fashion, there is a tendency towards brutal melodrama in the final third of the book, which is overdone. It’s a departure from realism which actually diminishes the force of the work.

So does a turn towards stereotyping, which gives this work less emotional truthfulness than The Yacoubian Building. There’s a passage that is rather clumsily anti-Jewish, a plotline that depends on believing that the city of Barack Obama is still a redoubt of Jim Crow racism, and a cameo portrait of a Texan that lacks a third dimension.

In order to make America a land of disappointments and not promise, al Aswany has to exaggerate its defects. That an author so clearsighted about Egypt, and the way in which its stunted political culture holds back its citizens, should succumb to such a partial view of America is a pity. There are all too many writers willing to draw a caricature of Uncle Sam and all too few who can give us a finely constructed realist portrait of a country such as Egypt. It is in the latter work that al Aswany excels, and it is in The Yacoubian Building that his genius really flourishes.