It’s hard to distill this 530 page novel into its essence for a short review. But we start off the novel with the wife of a middle-class store owner in Cairo in 1905 (ish) waking up at midnight in order to be ready to serve him when he comes home from a night of carousing. It doesn’t get much better for her.
Over all, this novel is not a bleak dour recounting of how poorly treated the wives of Cairo were at the time, but it does help to set the tone of how this novel views right vs wrong and how the roles of men and women dictate what is and isn’t right for them.
Women are just not regarded….like at all. It’s an insult for the patriarch to tell his wife he doesn’t have 3 sons and 2 daughters, but five daughters. It’s not hypocritical for him to have as many affairs as he wants but then banish his wife for leaving the house and embarrassing him by getting herself into danger (that was not her fault). It’s not hypocritical for him to get peevish at a woman he’s flirting wife when she brings up his previous lovers.
Because: the Qu’ran tells him that Women aren’t ruined by their own actions, but by the failure of men to protect them. The novel sees this through an ironic inversion. This is a man who doesn’t actually believe in the faith he espouses, but uses it to his own convenience. Like most people, he is critical of others who do not meet his exacting standards but does not apply those to himself. The difference in this book is that he cherry-picks from gospel to make it so. And he allows his sons to do the same. There’s a scene where the father is with a prostitute and the son is too, but rather than be weird and awkward, he’s proud for rubbing off on his son. There’s even a scene where the son is convinced to indulge is all kinds of delights forbidden because he can simply repent and make it right through a moral exchange of good acts.
This is the hypocrisy at the center of the novel. But don’t mistake it….it’s an incredibly strong novel written by a master writer. Mahfouz won the Nobel in 1988 and most of his works had been untranslated til then. These gems were lying dormant to western eyes, but he had had decades worth of material just waiting. There’s almost nothing in this novel that wouldn’t also apply to any kind of religious hypocrite we might wish to admonish.