The continuing stooooooory of how the Grand Vizier puts his feet up and lets other writers talk some sense for a change. This week: Adrian McKinty (right) on THE THIEF AND THE DOGS by Naguib Mahfouz.
Less Bark, More Bite: THE THIEF AND THE DOGS
Osama Bin Laden’s latest attack on western culture criticized Danish cartoons, western movies, western books, and freedom of speech, while praising – like tedious undergraduates everywhere – the work of Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk.
Lately the west has been fighting back against the Islamists through the writings of Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens and others who seem to think that nothing good has come out of Araby since they gave us the words for alcohol and tobacco.
Mystery novelists seldom venture onto this field and it’s not my intent here to add to any of this debate but rather to draw interested readers to the work of Naguib Mahfouz, whose crime novel THE THIEF AND THE DOGS is not only a classic of the genre but is a wonderful example of how west and east, genre fiction and literary fiction, religious writing and secular prose, can all get along famously in one great book.
Everyone can learn a little from THE THIEF AND THE DOGS and even if you couldn’t care less about the current political debates, the book should still delight as a fast-paced thriller.
Set in post-revolutionary 1950s Cairo, THE THIEF AND THE DOGS is about master-burglar Said Mahran and the weeks following his release from prison. During this time he attempts to reconcile with his family, to reconnect with his old friends, and eventually to seek revenge on the men who he feels have betrayed him.
His first day of freedom is a disaster. His daughter Sana doesn’t remember him and his former girlfriend (Sana’s mother) Nabawaiyya has married one of his old confederates, Illish. Mocked by Illish’s friends, Said wanders the boiling, confusing streets of Cairo seething with anger in one of the first of Mahfouz’s extraordinary expressionistic scenes that are strangely reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s early New York crime movie KILLER’S KISS (which is set at roughly the same time as Dogs).
Both Kubrick and Mahfouz (right) are attracted to outsiders, betrayal, sexual dishonesty and conspiracies, and both love plunging their characters deep into the abyss to see if they will survive.
Said Mahran fails the first of these tests, deciding to take up burglary again but without the gang of associates who used to help him case rich neighborhoods and work as servants inside the mansions of the elite to give him information on money and valuables. His anarchic unplanned solo burglary attempts are failures and Said narrowly escapes death. He seeks refuge with a Sufi Sheikh, a former friend of his father’s. The Sheikh offers him a bed and sanctuary but Said moves on again, eventually shacking up with a young prostitute called Nur. The story has its own inexorable momentum but its Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo that is the real eye-opener. Whores, thieves, beggars, whisky-drinking soldiers, corrupt officials – the whole fermenting underbelly of the ancient city laid bare. This is an Islamic culture that we seldom see in the west and it’s completely different from the shady Arab underworld that is given to us in perennially popular novels such as [Paul Bowles’] THE SHELTERING SKY or [Lawrence Durrell’s] Alexandria Quartet. Here the reader is inside the culture peering out, not the reverse, and this position is much more interesting. Seeking revenge against the whole of “cruel humanity”, Said settles on Rauf Illwan, an old school chum who has become a rich newspaper columnist. If he assassinates “the betrayer” Rauf, Said feels that his life will attain some kind of fame and meaning.
Nur begs him to abandon his plan and the Sufi Sheikh goes deeper telling him that a dramatic act is not necessary. The Sufis believe that we all have a chance at redemption, right here, right now. All our pain, all our suffering, is the proof that we are alive. Our hurts and our humiliations are what make us human and seeing that is a path to peace and acceptance. Inverting the famous line of the morning call to prayer (“come to the mosque, for prayer is better than sleep”) the Sheikh tells Said that for him sleep is a form of prayer. He should sleep and then wake up and love his life today, right now, for who knows what comes in the tomorrow or even the sweet hereafter.
Naturally Said rejects all of this and puts everything in place to carry out his assassination plan. Hunted by the newspapers, the police and informers, doors start closing on Said, his allies desert him, and his last refuge becomes a sprawling Cairo cemetery.
Despite his acclaim, Islamists dislike Naguib Mahfouz and dismiss THE THIEF AND THE DOGS as decadent western fiction (In 1994 one of these Islamist fanatics even tried to kill him). His defence of Salman Rushdie has made Mahfouz suspect in the Arab world and his failure to praise Rushdie as a writer annoyed some in the west. Literary critics prefer Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize-winning Cairo Trilogy to his crime fictions, but it would be a shame if the forces of reaction or counter-reaction kept THE THIEF AND THE DOGS from a wider readership.
All of us, including Osama Bin Laden and his largely Egyptian followers, would get so much more from Naguib Mahfouz than by any number of tracts by Chomsky, Fisk, Amis or Danish cartoonists. Certainly anyone looking for a terrific crime novel set in Egypt that doesn’t feature Belgian detectives or western lotus eaters could do worse than read Mahfouz’s short masterpiece, THE THIEF AND THE DOGS. – Adrian McKinty
Adrian McKinty is the author of THE BLOOMSDAY DEAD. His latest novel, FIFTY GRAND, will be published by Holt later this year.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.