Friday, April 30, 2010

[great cities, ii] al aswany: the yacoubian building

#41 The Yacoubian Building, Alaa al Aswany, trans. Humphrey Davies

This is an unobtrusive and beautiful translation of a strange, sad, sometimes lovely novel. The Yacoubian building, the translator's note tells us, does in fact exist in Cairo, but the real one is very different from the block where al Aswany's characters flourish, mingle and decay. Each character is his or her own little Cairo in this novel: exiled from the past, detached from other, crueller parts of Egypt, or cut off from a future, they all linger in the uncertain present of a city that is almost too old to have a history. Former aristocrats, who remember the colonial city, a cosmopolitan and high-bred haven for the upper classes, struggle bitterly with the new realities of Cairo, while new immigrants to the city find themselves alienated without money or education, huddled on the terraces of the building, above the apartments of those they serve. It is incredibly hard to be poor in this Cairo, and even harder to be a poor woman. No matter how harshly the line is drawn between man and woman, or gay and straight, the ultimate and insurmountable hurdle is class. Sustaining that hurdle [in an ur-text that echoes a clear and present strain in Indian popular culture] is the omnipresent corruption: in government systems, of religion, and of course, in relationships.

But The Yacoubian Building is not grim, even if it is harsh. It builds itself on small, almost light-hearted human dramas, in which the lives of the building's residents - ranging across classes and cultures - criss-cross with each other. Some of the stories end on a note of unexpected sweetness, but the frustrations of the novel surface in the way not enough do. The narrative voice is ironic and cool, but it folds a strong sense of justice in between the lines. None of the stories set out to make amends for inujstice, or serve anyone their just desserts, either: we are led to sympathise with each character, we are not promised, nor do we receive, sympathetic ends to all their stories. Nor is al Aswany ready to build barricades against any single kind or class of person, except perhaps for the evident dissatisfaction, universal among the characters, for Egypt's dictatorial government and its inability to serve any of its citizens well.

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