Book Review: The Automobile Club of Egypt
by Alaa al Aswany
translated from the Arabic by Russell Harris
The anchor of great Egyptian novelist Alaa al Aswany’s wildly popular 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building was the eponymous Cairo apartment building, around which and through which the author told the stories of half a dozen characters living in the tumultuous years following Nasser’s 1952 revolution. Aswany returns to this kind of device in his latest novel to be translated into English, The Automobile Club of Egypt, in which he dramatizes the lives of two generations of two families connected with the title club, an anachronistic colonial holdout and haven for ex-pat Europeans in post-World War II Cairo. The two families, the down-on-their-luck formerly prosperous Gaafars and the more workaday Hamamas, share the spotlight with a variety of others, including some of the Club’s patrons and with some of the Club’s management, including its odious dictator Alku and its oily managing director James Wright, his wife Victoria, and their strong-willed and beautiful daughter Mitsy. And floating over the whole collection of plot lines is Egypt’s newly-dissolute young king:
Over the course of just a few years, the king of Egypt went from being a hardworking and upright young man – his subjects’ greatest hope for a national renaissance – to a reckless and lazy man who lived for pleasure, carousing all night and sleeping all day. He spent his nights gambling at the Automobile Club or enjoying himself at the Auberge des Pyramides nightclub.
A chunk of the novel centers on the story of Abd el-Aziz Gafaar, the patriarch of his family, now forced by reversal of fortunes to work a low-paying job at the Automobile Club, which works also as the center of the lives of his two sons, intense Kamel and hunky, biddable young Mahmud, both of whom gradually gravitate toward various factions of the revolutionary political movements brewing under the surface of everyday life. Aswany fashions Abd el Aziz into a tragic figure of genuinely moving proportions, but this is a larger and more generous novel than anything this author has ever written, and infuses all of his characters with a fallible, usually likable three-dimensionality. James Wright, for instance, ends up being the object of legitimate if minor empathy, even if he’s also a loutish quasi-racist mystified by his daughter’s insistence on staying in Egypt:
What did she like so much about this backward country? He was obliged to be here as he could never command such a large salary or find such a cushy job in London. But Mitsy had decided to live among the riffraff and study drama in a country whose language she could not speak! Good Lord. He could not think of anything more idiotic. Even if she loved the Orient, even if she loved camels, pyramids, incense, men in galabiyyas and women in abayas, she could still study in London and visit Egypt during the holidays.
(He’s also loutish in his eager acceptance of the overtures of the King’s confidant – and procurer – Carol Boticelli to facilitate introducing the famously libidinous King to Mitsy … and she handles herself frostily well in the subsequent encounters themselves)
As in his previous novels, Aswany brings a sparkling understated wit to the dialogue with which his long book is filled. Virtually every segment of the book features such dialogue (indeed, in the author’s whimsical framing device, he himself is visited at home by characters from the novel whose main concern is that he didn’t let them talk enough), and the author’s enjoyment of those moments ripples through them. Young Mahmud, early in the novel, is a popular delivery-boy for the Automobile Club (“His handsome, young face, his ebony skin, his pearly teeth, which glistened when he smiled, his giant frame with its bulging muscles, his embroidered uniform, which made him look more like a matador or a cavalryman on parade, his repeated and majestic bows,” Aswany writes, “ – this all inspired the admiration of the customers, magnifying their sense of importance and with that their generosity”), and when he makes a delivery to Club member Madame Khashab, a “short, plump Englishwoman” who’d married an English landowner, their brief conversation shifts easily along the whole spectrum from teenager earnestness to world-weary self-indulgence:
“Should I pour you a glass of whiskey?”
“No, thank you.”
“Just one glass.”
“Madame, I am a Muslim. We’re not allowed alcohol.”
Madame Khashab laughed and took a sip of her whiskey.
“Do you pray?” she asked.
“Not regularly, unfortunately. Sometimes I forget and sometimes I don’t get around to it.”
She seemed to be thinking of something, to be looking for the right words.
“How old are you, Mahmud?” she asked him.
“All right. And don’t you know more now than when you were ten?”
“Of course I do.”
“Good. And it is God who created the whole world and everyone in it, so he must understand more than all of us.”
“And if God knows more than all of us, then he must forgive us?”
“Does he forgive us even if we do stupid things?” he asked naively.
“God has to punish us for big sins,” she said laughing. “He punishes us if we hurt people. If we lie or steal or murder. But if we drink a glass or two to drown our sorrows, I don’t think God would punish us for such a small thing.”
That was rather complicated logic for Mahmud, who nodded, a smile frozen on his face.
“So what do you say?” Madame Khashab asked him again. “Shall I pour you a glass?”
“No, thank you.”
“All right, as you like. Would you like a glass of chocolate milk?”
He hesitated a little and then answered quietly, “That would be lovely.”
(Mahmud’s later coarsening into far worse vices than Madame Khashab could imagine is a nicely ironic outgrowth of such early priggishness; this is a book that repays re-reading)
The Automobile Club of Egypt is a longer and richer reading experience than the famous Yacoubian Building. It’s a more searching work, angrier in its criticisms of social hypocrisy, sharper in its tragic sensibilities, more ample in its scope despite the tight centering device it shares with that earlier book. This new book, beautifully translated by Russell Harris, deserves every bit as wide a success – it’s a masterpiece, the warmest and finest and most involving Egyptian novel in the last thirty years.