Guest Review: Roy Kesey

thedreams.jpgThe Dreams
Naguib Mahfouz
American University in Cairo Press

Dreams are strange and wonderful things. Our own dreams, that is. Other people’s dreams, of course, are just fucking irritating. “And so then this huge purple-and-green snake rose up out of the stick of butter! And the snake had the face of Tom Cruise! Except it wasn’t Tom Cruise, it was my sister! And then the stick of butter turned into an M1 Abrams, and all of a sudden I’m on a battlefield, kind of like Vietnam except not exactly, more like Ecuador, maybe? Are there battlefields in Ecuador? Anyway, so then…”

Which is why I got a little nervous when I read in Raymond Stock’s translator’s introduction to The Dreams that the mini-narratives in this, Mahfouz’s latest book, are all based on dreams that Mahfouz himself actually had, and then developed into fiction. Cue the butter-snakes, I thought.

I needn’t have worried. Mahfouz has written more books than most people have read, has shown time and again that he knows his way around the narrative block, and well and truly earned his 1988 Nobel on the strength of both his early historical work (most notably the Cairo trilogy–Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street) and his later, more allegorical and/or experimental work, including Miramar, The Journey of Ibn Fatouma and Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth.

In The Dreams, Mahfouz continues his explorative use of non-mimetic narrative strategies, and of its 104 short pieces–prose-poems, really–only a few fail on the score of overly dreamy, unresolved, unredeeming randomness. Which isn’t to say that he knocks the rest of them out of the park. Some are allegories that come already uninterestingly unpacked: Egyptian society, for example, as a man bound and tortured, except that he is his own torturer, and ignorance–he says so himself–is his instrument of choice. Others feel vague and empty, while still others are overly personal, never escaping onto ground that readers outside the author’s family and friends might be interested in mapping.

All of which makes this review sound like a pan, I know. But it isn’t, not really. First, fourteen of the pieces, taken individually, are diamonds–big, fat, gorgeous, change-not-a-word diamonds that shine from every angle. Dream 5 in particular: a half-dozen Ph.D. theses could be strained from this half-page alone, its street that becomes a circus, the narrator’s joy at the miracles of acrobats and trapeze artists, until the miraculous becomes repetitive, and then tense, and then terrifying. Can we give this guy another Nobel on the strength of these two hundred words? Seriously? Or a free car? Or something?

Second, we must add to those fourteen another ten that are brilliantly, hauntingly unconcluded but not inconclusive, plus fifty or so that are solid enough to make for good reading. And third–here comes the money shot–know that the whole is far greater than the sum. Put another, better way: the demons that rise up out of the fog to poke at us would obviously be far less effective if there were no fog out of which to rise, and Mahfouz, as both fog-machine and demon-wielder, sees to it that even the pieces which fail on an individual level come to help constitute the ever-thickening atmosphere of loss and confusion, paranoia and persecution, chaos and insufficiency, the fear of being judged unfairly and, still worse, the fear of being judged fairly.

Know too that this book does very nearly all necessary good work without demanding recourse to autobiographical detail, but, sucker for gossip that I am, I can’t help pointing out that Mahfouz has earned every last shred of the fear and paranoia that appear in his dreams and Dreams. Thing is, this is the first book of his to appear since 1994, when at the age of eighty-two he was stabbed in the neck with a switchblade on orders from the blind Egyptian cleric Omar Abd al-Rahman because he, Mahfouz, refused to repent having written Children of the Alley, wherein, according to his critics, God and the prophets are unethically presented as fallible beings.

Stabbed in the neck! With a switchblade! On orders from a blind cleric! Because of the power of his fiction! Boy, some people have all the luck.

Roy Kesey lives in Beijing, and has published fictional and nonfictional objects in several places. Occasionally he talks to people. This is his first published book review, unless you count the pretend one.


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