Sunday, 20 June 2010

Miramar by Naguib Mahfouz

Lowdown: A young woman causes havoc within the guests at an Alexandria pension.
I've heard about Naguib Mahfouz on many occasion, but I only started entertaining the thought of reading one of his books after Miramar received a glowing recommendation from Benny Tsifer. Tsifer is the editor of Israel Haaretz newspaper's literature section, but more interestingly he writes a blog that I have been addicted to over several years now. I don't always agree with what Tsifer says, but I respect his opinion; when Miramar was recommended, and given the intrigue Egypt and its culture hold with me, it was just a question of time before I put my hands on a copy.
Set in the mid sixties and taking place at a seaside pension house in Alexandria, Miramar tells the story of the events and the troubles taking place when a beautiful young girl who escaped from family tradition and a forced marriage arrives to work at the pension. In good old Rashomon style, we read the description of the same events as they are told by various guests of the pension. Each story is told in first person, and the result in an intriguing game of perspectives where we learn a lot by the way the same story is told differently.
The various story tellers and pension guests each have different backgrounds that conspire to create a representation of Egyptian politics. There lies the book's main agenda: While on the face of it Miramar is a detective like story about the way the different guests fall for the same woman and the murder that transpires, things are obviously a metaphor for events transpiring in Egyptian society with its different factions trying to take over Egypt (or, in Miramar's case, the young and innocent pretty girl).
Miramar's story is well told and is quite intriguing, although I have found its numerous flashbacks too annoying. More disturbing was the frequent vagueness of the story telling, preventing the reader from knowing exactly who said what or figuring out exactly what's taking place from time to time. You can see the purpose this serves, but I still prefer clarity. That said, Miramar has been quite an eye opener for me, and that came as a direct result of the multiple first person story telling approach: I am so used to stories being told by the hero, who is always the good guy or at least the guy you're supposed to identify with, that the thought of reading a first person story from a person who is far from good, a person with whom one simply cannot identify, has been quite intriguing.
Overall: Because of its unique story telling and exposure to a foreign culture, Miramar is probably worth more than the 3.5 out of 5 stars I'm giving it.

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