A panoramic portrait of Egyptian life

 

SHORT STORIES: Friendly FireBy Alaa Al Aswany Translated by Humphrey Davies Fourth Estate, 219pp. £10.99: IN THE preface to Friendly Fire, a collection of short stories and one novella, Alaa Al Aswany writes of his “insatiable curiosity about and genuine need to understand people and learn from them”.

In his restless pursuit of human variety, he tells us, he has “made friends with poor people and rich, retired politicians and bankrupt former princes, alcoholics, ex-convicts, fallen women, religious fanatics, con men, thugs and gang leaders”.

Inevitably, perhaps, Aswany’s fiction reflects this multiplicity of acquaintance. In texture, the stories in Friendly Firerecall the social panoramas familiar to us from 19th-century novels. It is Al Aswany’s intention to capture as much of the life of his country as possible. His medium for this project is the scrupulously detailed depiction of character, and it is in characterisation that his gifts as a writer come most fully to life.

Aswany himself is a fascinating figure. A force for liberal-democratic reform in his native Egypt, he hosts a weekly literary salon in Cairo that doubles as a forum for political debate. Famously, he also practised as a dentist for many years before the huge success of his novel The Yacoubian Building(2002), and still makes time for his patients between book tours.

Friendly Firewas privately published several years before The Yacoubian Building, but on the strength of that novel’s success it has been translated into English by Humphrey Carpenter and republished. The centrepiece of the book is The Isam Abd el-AtiPapers. The eponymous narrator of this satirical novella, a dead ringer for Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man (“The most complex mental problems pose no challenge to my thinking but any spontaneous simple interaction with people throws me into confusion and renders me powerless”), offers us a series of snapshots from his life: his boorish boss bribes an honest female employee into keeping quiet about an incident of sexual harassment, his self-centred mother is diagnosed with cancer and becomes resentfully dependent on the family maid. The narrative is a vehicle for el-Ati’s voice: bitter, observant, hysterical, impassioned.

Gradually, however, Isam Abd el-Ati’s voice becomes quieter, and the novella becomes a series of beautifully rendered portraits: of the ailing grandmother who wets herself only “in front of visitors, whether relatives or strangers”, and – most poignantly – of el-Ati’s father, a failed artist whose chief pleasure comes from smoking hashish with his failed musician friend. Isam’s father’s failure is made all the more moving by a single uncharacteristic moment of generosity on the part of his son – and his death is reported in an unforgettably throwaway sentence.

It is axiomatic that any fiction written in a one-party state will be deeply concerned with questions of power, and most of the stories in Friendly Firehinge upon instances of the arbitrary exercise of state authority: a poor man who works as a hospital porter and depends on tips to feed his family is pointlessly reassigned to guard-duty, where he will receive no tips (An Administrative Order); an arrogant surgeon destroys the careers of any students who are foolish enough to cross him (The Kitchen Boy).

But Aswany’s attention to the telling details of Egyptian life is always in the service of character. There are some beautiful moments. In one story ( And We Have Covered Their Eyes), a man who works in an empty government job (“stamping papers was about all that Mr Gouda’s job consisted of”) is moved to tears when a stranger removes a loose thread from his shirt, because the gesture – kindly meant – reminds him painfully of his own poverty.

It is moments like these that make the reader think of Aswany’s title, “friendly fire”, meaning an inadvertent bullet fired by someone on your side. This is a rich book, and Humphrey Davies’s translation is ably done: the stories flow easily by, and it is often only once you have read them and moved on that their larger meanings return to haunt you.

Kevin Power’s novel, Bad Day in Blackrock, is published by the Lilliput Press