Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building (2004), recently published in English after becoming a bestseller in Arabic (first published 2002), does not fully deliver on the promise of its title. The building that gives the novel its title is not the main character, nor is it particularly well-delineated.
As a metaphor for the nation state of Egypt, it may appear, at first glance, to give a nicely heterogenous fillip to complexity - different classes of people are depicted in the book - but the thematic demands of Aswany's individual narratives dominate to such an extent that the building-as-metaphor is subsumed in the clamour of conflict they exhale in our minds.
In fact, the list of complaints Aswany levels at his society is not entirely novel for a Western reader. The book, however, is a page-turner and because Aswany is in control of his characters and the situations they get into, we feel happy to read without stopping, knowing that the author is in command of his material.
Unfortunately, we are able to say that The Yacoubian Building is a 'must-read' for any student of the Levant, of the Third World, or of history. Because art takes second place to polemic. In this way, I feel that the novel is a valid exponent of the 19th century novel of ideas.
A particular failure in this sense is Aswany's inability to delineate the reason for Dawlat's frenzy. Zaki's sister turns, at some point in her maturity, into a harridan but we do not know why. The ethical conclusion of the book - inherent in the final scenes with Zaki and Busayna - seems to coruscate Dawlat but we are not told why she became that way.
Empathy is the particular province of the novel and Aswany's failure to do justice to Dawlat is signal for me. His rendering of Taha's trajectory from eager police conscript to something far more dangerous, is a tonic developing nations with large Muslim populations should 'take on board'.
Taha's story is probably the most striking of the lot, and echoes that of Shalimar in Salman Rusdhie's Shalimar the Clown (2005).
Equally problematic, from a Modernist point of view, is the story of Hatim the homosexual newspaper editor. This story is very interesting in the way it taps into the rich stream of Western gay fiction (I was partiularly mindful of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Fox and His Friends (1975)).
But Egyptian sexual sensibilities are more fully illustrated in those peripheral scenes where the topic is discussed casually among neighbours and between friends.
It is impossible to end the book with any other impulse than a wish for the author to continue writing engaged and relevant books about a culture we never, or rarely, see. But I would qualify this by hoping that this medical doctor (who obviously has lived with leisure for a long time) would look deeper.
There are still things to say about Islam that most, including Aswany, shy away from articulating. This is dangerous, as a full understanding of the psychological and aesthetic imperatives behind radical Islam is required to adequately address its consequences.
Wouldn't it be wonderful, for example, if someone wrote a book about the similarities between wahabism and the Puritan ethos of the 17th-century Commonwealthmen? Perhaps a Muslim student living in England could be studying history.
As part of his education, he investigates the reasons for radical Christianity from the Middle Ages to the end of the Renaissance. Where would his sympathies lie? How does he react to the flippant hedonism of middle-class English boys?