It’s too easy to conflate one novel of an author with the total of that author’s work, as it’s also too easy to conflate an author winning the Nobel Prize as being a representative of their respective country as a stand-in for all literature of that country. Obviously there’s some Western chauvinism at play in doing so but also it’s quite limiting in its estimation of what that body of work might contain.
Adrift on the Nile is a very different novel from Palace Walk (and by extension the other novels in the Cairo Trilogy if they maintain the same basic structures and style and subject of the first one). This novel is only 150 pages or so, but still represents a full picture of a time, a place, and a sensibility. Still in Cairo, but representing some 50 years later, this novel tells the story of a group of cosmopolitan friends who drink, discuss art, and think through their situation in the aftermath of a regimes in Egypt that no longer rewards a casual intellectual class with the life of leisure they so desire. It’s not the same feel as a dystopian novel where the destruction of democracy has led to a rounding up of dissidents, but certainly could feel that way if your way of life were in danger. It turns out that in the fallout of empire the labor of the country still actually had to be done by someone, and so now that people are being called to account for their role in new country, those who contributed in much more abstract (or not at all) ways find it difficult to make their way.
This is an interesting, if slight, novel. It doesn’t have the ooomph of the previous by Mahfouz, but it has an impact equally in proportion to its goal and subject.