Desperately seeking fusion

2008-12-17 00:00

Written by the best-selling Egyptian writer Allaa Al Aswany, who is also a dentist, this novel is set in post- 9/11 Chicago but Egypt remains a central focus of the book. Most of the large cast of characters are students or professors (both American and Egyptian) in the histology department at the university’s medical centre. Their diverse lives are tracked in a series of story segments that sometimes intersect.

The novel suggests that individuals’ conflicting needs associated with sex, love (or its lack), family ties, a sense of duty, idealism or religious observance are motivators that are just as powerful as the demands of political patronage and expediency or the drive for prestige and prosperity.

The complexities of the characters’ circumstances and motivations are engaging, although some of the characterisation at times approaches stereotype. An annoying device is to interrupt story segments at a critical point and cut away to another, usually unrelated, story, thus creating a series of contrived cliffhangers. The fact that Chicago was first serialised in weekly installments in the Egyptian opposition newspaper Al Dustour may account for this structure. But the continual dislocation of the narrative flow makes engagement difficult and some readers may page forward to pick up the action (as I did) and so circumvent the irritation.

Charles Dickens’s novels were also first published in serialised form, and like Dickens, Al Aswany has a heart-felt sympathy for the underdog and a passion for social justice. He also has a passion for Egypt and the novel is infused by his desire for democracy for Egypt and his loathing of its dictatorship.

Although uneven in tone — ranging from farcical to delicate — the novel is well worth reading for its warm sincerity, its acute observations concerning human frailties and fidelities, and its clear-eyed scrutiny of what it is to be cut off from home and culture and be a stranger in a strange new place.

Carol Brammage

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