Two days without a laptop meant at last my return to a good old paperback for companionship.
This short story collection by the master of modern Arabic litearture provides yet another window into the human perception of Death. Most stories in the collection revolve around the concepts of death, redemption and (very Greek) suffering of the human soul. We see questions asked that are so purely agonizing, that you read them once and cannot help but relate:
"Why does every taste lose its succulence? Why the moaning of pain when there is no cause for pain?"
In the first, and titular story, we see Death personified. Mahfooz presents Death as an unnamed assailant chasing the hero of the story. And through the hero's journey, it progresses eventually into the bizarre and insane. We see his anguish, his attempt to escape from something he can only identify by scent. And there are so many symbols to behold. We see Death given the scent of musk. This scent is then linked with fear, suffering and shock instead of the beauty and elegance it is often associated with. This is Mahfooz taking you out of your comfort zone with a very simple, yet effective, touch.
We see the ultimate question where the hero, at the end of the story, dismisses his fears as "daydreams" and that they are "useless". And this was the part that truly left me so hooked with the story because Mahfooz seems to subtly ask a heavily interesting question: Is it madness to run away from Death? But then again, isn't it purely the instinct of man to run away from Death? Aren't we meant to be in constant escape? And the genius of the author shines incredibly through: It would have been so easy for him to state the moral value of "you cannot run away from Death" by killing away our hero but, through the bizarre, he finds a way around that and asks the much more complex question we discussed which is much, much deeper and more courageous than a simple moral statement.
And then there is an equally interesting symbol: We find that the hero discovers his "madness" on his way back from his marriage. Although this seems subtle and merely an excuse to start the conclusion, I think one could read deeper and we can find another question: Is love an awakening from the madness of the obsession of constantly running away from Death? Is love merely a distraction away from Death?
And aside from all these deep existential questions, we find, of course, the linguistic beauty of Mahfooz soaring through the roof with heavy characterization and feel for words and we see characters react to other character's mere glances.
Then he jumps at us with entertaining, satirical, yet interesting, ideas including mental patients having to pick the biggest local and global problems and attempt to solve them as part of their therapy; the logic being "if you can solve the world's problems, surely you can solve your own". And the mad solutions that the hero arrives at are so bizarrely entertaining, they are, by themselves, a joy to read. This story, alone, is worth the whole book.
The next story I wanted to explore is, again, very close to the Greek concept of suffering we mentioned earlier where human suffering is not a means to the dramatic climax but its end. And the tragedy is not in the death of the character but in the death of every possible hope or dream of the character. The death is not bodily as it is a true ending of the soul. We meet a character in "A Far-sighted Plan" who is a nobody in his society. He lived for over fifty years in sarcasm and laughter at his own stupidity, ignorance, negativity and lack of luck. And when sudden wealth at last arrives, he dies at the moment of his euphoria. The narrator exclaims in heart-breaking anguish at the moment of death:
"He called in his fevered thoughts upon the manager...Nooh...Othman...The wealth...The bride...The woman...The dream...Nothing wants to respond. Why was the miracle, then? Impossible...God! Impossible..."
When I read this, I immediately recalled the famous Tantalus (whose story inspired the English verb, tantalize) : the Greek son of Zeus who offered his own son as sacrifice for the gods (to actually eat him!) and was punished for his human sacrifice by being placed in a pool of water under a fruit tree with low branches. When he tilted his head up, the fruit would move away. When he went down for a drink, the water level would drop. And he would stay in this eternal suffering forever. This infinite temptation, though classic in its immense evil, presents a parable about the nature of temptation. The metaphor is clear and very expressive of human nature: Suffering and death of the soul lies in unsatisfied temptation.
The hero of "A Far-sighted Plan" is not nearly close to the crime of the mythical Tantalus but he lives the eventual fate of Tantalus and we can easily draw parallels: He is in a state of constant, unsatisfied temptation and need. His suffering is met eventually with a glimpse of hope. And the hope immediately fades away, stolen by Death in a moment of stark anguish and yearning for an excruciatingly close, yet infinitely unreachable, happiness. He experiences superficial happiness and even though he is brought to light as an unlovable character, in his last moments we are forced to sympathize with the human condition.
Mahfooz presents Death in this story as a thief of the happiness of a simple, unlucky and dull man. And in a previous story of the same collection, "Whispers", he presents Death as a fatherly figure. A constant annoyance and a reminder to "take care" and "be organized" who is, however, met with genuine affection and yearning at the end of life. It is Mahfooz's fascination with the concept and manipulation of the symbol (culminating in his epic and most poignant work, Children of the Alley [أولاد حارتـــنا]) that makes of his work a truly satisfying experience on every new read. It is this that gives genuine meaning to his words and makes his entire body of work, and in particular his explorations of the short story genre, undeniably timeless.
Until we meet later,