Naguib Mahfouz sculpted characters, not in his novels, but in the minds of his readers. Cinema helped him. No Arab novelist had more films made based on his novels. And so, his written words and the takes of different film-makers on his work, allowed Naguib Mahfouz to imprint his characters deep on the Arab imagination.
There is dictatorship in talent. Naguib Mahfouz did not leave his readers with options of how to think about these characters. You are free to judge, of course. But you are given all the details, from the externals (decisions, actions, choices, and how they are made and carried out) to the internals (the why .. typically delivered gradually in Naguib Mahfouz’s trademark self-dialogues). And although these internal expositions are difficult to portray in moving pictures, film-makers were faithful to this Mahfouzesque way of revealing his characters’ depths, layer after layer. Naguib Mahfouz did not even leave you with words and phrases you are familiar with, even if you are a native Arabic speaker with adequate exposure to Egypt’s different slangs. He invented speaking flows for his characters – not just styles of talking that actors can adopt in portraying the characters; his flows were intended to show in stark rawness how his characters thought.
Many of Naguib Mahfouz’s characters became synonymous with certain themes. This transcends collections of phrases that have come, in the collective Arab mind, to encapsulate certain meanings. Themes here mean that these characters, as Naguib Mahfouz had formed them, became associated with certain emotions, say melancholy for a lost era (in Miramar for example), or suppressed anger coming to the surface as pleasure-seeking nihilism (say in Chatter Over the Nile). Whereas for many of his international readers, Naguib Mahfouz was a creator of a universe of Egyptianness that they sail into, stopping at different constellations (say, the Cairo Trilogy) or at a black hole of grief (such as The Quail and the Autumn), for his Egyptian and probably many Arab readers, Naguib Mahfouz is a creator of characters that are primarily concentrations of themes.
His success was colossal. And yet, at the moment when Naguib Mahfouz had all the freedom to write what he wanted in the way he wanted, he stopped making characters. Actually, he banished them completely from his writings.
Freedom was important to him, for it was long in coming. Naguib Mahfouz began his serious writing in the 1940s when his favourite party, al-Wafd, was in open warfare with King Farouk. During Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s 1950s and 1960s, Naguib Mahfouz was careful: he put forward arguably his deepest socio-political work, yet without antagonising the powers that be. By the 1970s and early 1980s, age was taking its toll on the man.
The Nobel prize in literature came in old age. And with it came a financial windfall for the man with two daughters who, like all Egyptian men of his generation, was concerned about the cost of buying “el-gehaz” (their dowry).
With the Nobel prize also came untouchability by any censor or critic. Who would dare intervene in the work of the only Arab author to ever achieve that prestigious international accolade?
Freedom also came after a knifing in the neck. Asked what he thought of the 22-year old man who attempted to kill him because he had heard Muslim sheikhs denounce his writings as heretic, the 82-year old Naguib Mahfouz said he wished the young man had read his work and thought for himself. But, after that, what else could have happened?
In those precious years until his death roughly a decade after the attack, Naguib Mahfouz stripped his ideas from any characters. In those years he soared away from his beloved Cairo, with its political, societal, and emotional complications. He flew inside himself, seeing in the internal what is external, connecting his own world of ideas with what he imagined was a cosmos of ideals.
In those years Naguib Mahfouz wrote of the beyond, which many critics saw as an old man’s reflections on death. But his beyond was more than abstractions abut the end of life. Naguib Mahfouz’s words here were as much about beginnings as they were about ends.
He also consistently chose to label many of his writings of that last period: “dreams”. But these writings’ coherence, directionality, and subtle confidence were far away from dreams’ vagueness, circularity, and beguiling fluidity. Naguib Mahfouz’s “dreams” were intentional dives into an ocean of meanings, out of which he had selected, put together, and then put forward what he wanted his readers to know as his last words.
His insistence in making these dreams devoid of any key character, including himself, could not be but intentional. In contrast to his oeuvre in six decades, in this last period, Naguib Mahfouz pushed the ideas and the ideals to the front, on their own, penetrating into the readers’ minds, without any coating of the flesh and characteristics of characters, or even those of circumstances. Just before waving goodbye, or perhaps au revoir, the old man made sure that his last thoughts, his last words portrayed and carried nothing but their innate meanings.
This direct aim at meaning might have been a reflection of where Naguib Mahfouz had found himself at at this last stage of his life. Perhaps freed from the shackles of navigating society’s politics and norms, freed from the need to create for a living, he found the way to his long sought meanings easier. Instead of unfolding meanings through protracted journeys of complex characters, going directly towards the desired ends paid off quicker and higher.
Some think of those last works in the Catholic sense of admitting a sin of omission. It is, as if those last words were his way of saying what he could not say in the six decades earlier.
Not true. He was cautious before, but that was not the point. What Naguib Mahfouz said in the previous six decades, in the long journeys of his characters that he had laboriously laid out in front of us, was necessary for Naguib Mahfouz himself, and those who read his later work, to arrive at the direct routes of this later work. In a way, the long journeys had been the growth process that was necessary, was crucial, for the directness that was to follow.
As an old saying goes: books take on lives of their own. And so will happen to Naguib Mahfouz’s last collections of reflections and dreams. Although these later works are now generally treated as separate from his novels, I think they will come to signify the seal of his literary output. Perhaps in his own way, Naguib Mahfouz was following the Islamic schools of gnosis that have sought to subtly educate before raising the eye to the heaven with the mantra: “O Omniscient, I have informed”.