I have been reading the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz. I’ve made my way through the first two books, Palace Walk and the Palace of Desire, and I’m going to read the third one, Sugar Street, as soon as I finish M Train, the book I’m currently reading. The Trilogy is a family saga. Family sagas are one of my favourite genres, because of the alluring promise of a thick book that the genre carries with it.
I have mixed feelings about this trilogy.
I really enjoyed the first book, and got invested in the characters and their lives. That’s always an indicator of talent in my eyes. I like authors who wring my heart and occasionally rip it to shreds, and that can only be done if I feel some amount of fondness for the characters.
However, and this is a pretty massive problem, I found the prose waxed entirely too self-indulgent, too rambling and too self-righteous, when the author narrated the internal monologues of any of the characters. I could still bear it in the first book, but in the second book, it got unbearable. In the second book, Kamal, the youngest son in the family (I suspected that the author based on himself and my suspicions were confirmed as true by the ever-reliable interweb.) grows up and attends college. And I must say that he thinks entirely too much! And the author dedicates his pen to the transcription of his every thought, regardless of its importance to the story. Thought for thought’s sake is great, and god knows I think a hell of a lot, but I maintain that they remain in philosophic books and journals. And yes, I do have an enjoyment for journals, which makes my distaste for this rambling writing style seem contradictory, but it isn’t. You see, journals are in the first person. These books are not. And when a person makes the stylistic choice of writing in the third person perspective, it’s a stylistic choice and the content should be altered accordingly. Else, things get dull. Very dull. Skim-read-till-plot-happens dull.
And that brings me to a connected thought that’s bothering me. Well, this story starts out in Cairo in the beginning of the 20th Century. The men in the story are terribly misogynistic. Their actions are appalling and their thoughts are more so. And the third person narration of these thoughts makes me highly uncomfortable because the author has not volunteered his opinion of them, making me constantly wonder if he’s in agreement with them.
This made me think about an author’s role in a story that’s written in the third person. In my opinion, when an author writes in the third person, he’s becoming a part of the story, an omniscient third party who is present throughout and whom the reader is counting on. Of course, an author can just narrate the happenings faithfully and get away with it if the story is arresting, and if he/she keeps the monologues to a minimum, but not otherwise. I believe that this should especially be the case in novels classified as literature, since literature seems to attribute a… responsibility, for want of a better word, to a book that mere narration does not fulfil.
I’m still eager to read the third book because the second one ended on a cliffhanger. Cliffhangers are both brilliant and evil. Besides, I’m still extremely invested in the characters, who are well-rounded and flawed and interesting.
So, I guess I’ll post a follow up review of the trilogy (a complete one) once I finish it.
In the meantime, tell me what do you think. Is anyone else out there an aspiring writer who thinks as much as I do about writing tools and styles and the responsibility of writers of literature? Has any of you ever read these books? What did you think of them? What do you think an author’s role is in a story? What does literature mean to you? Do any of you enjoy reading long monologues in novels? If you do, what is it about them that appeals to you? Let me know in the comments.
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