adrift on the nile coverOur book today is a slight little thing: a 1966 novel by Naguib Mahfouz with the title Tharthara Fawq al Nil, here translated into English by Frances Liardet as Adrift on the Nile. I’ve recently reread it as the slow, tidal process of my re-evaluation of this author works its way through my Brattle buying habits. I don’t know where I’d be if my reading temperament didn’t have that natural re-evaluation valve – or rather, I know exactly where I’d be: I’d be back in 1966 myself, still liking all the things I liked then, still ranting against all the things I ranted against then. I’ve known a great many such readers, and I have no desire to be one of them.

Naturally, the goal of any such rapprochement with Mahfouz must be his masterpiece, “The Cairo Trilogy,” but the man wrote an enormous amount, and a soggily active mind animated all of it, a wry and probing mind that’s evident in every book, and I once knew a very voracious young Egyptian reader who ranked Adrift on the Nile very highly among the man’s work.

I can sort of see why. It’s a strange and oddly, fitfully dreamy book. Its main character is a hapless forty-something Egyptian civil servant named Anis Zaki who works in a stultifying government archives office and who, as the story opens, is reprimanded by his Director General for doing poor work – and for showing up at the office half-stupefied with drugs.

The second half is entirely right. Every evening Zaki goes home to his moored houseboat on the Nile and enters a careful ritual that starts, tellingly, with aimless reading:

Anis looked now at the books on the shelves, which covered the whole of the long wall to the left of the door. It was a library of history, from the dawn of time to the atomic age, domain of his imagination and storehouse of his dreams. At random, he took down a book on monasticism in the Coptic period in order to read, as he did every day, for an hour or two before his siesta.

But the key ritual of these evenings isn’t reading but rather the nightly gathering of his disparate group of friends, who come aboard to sit around the water-pipe, smoke kief all night, and spin out long conversations on every stoner subject that comes into their minds. Mahfouz is quite simply brilliant at bringing this kind of very rambling, very erudite (and hence, very Egyptian) gathering to life; his handful of characters come from many strata of society (and a newly-introduced member adds some much-needed cohesion to their narration), and Mahfouz captures the drift and bluster of their conversation so colorfully that actual plot feels almost beside the point. He’s also very good at bringing us back regularly to poor Zaki’s sensuous and vaguely paranoid thoughts:

The water pipe continued on its glowing, melodious way. A halo of midges clustered around the neon light. Outside, beyond the balcony, darkness had set in. The Nile had vanished save for a few geometric shapes, some regular, some irregular: the reflections of the streetlights on the opposite bank, and the illuminated windows of the other houseboats. The Director’s bald pate loomed, like the hull of an upturned boat, in the embrace of darkness. He must surely have been a scion of the Hyskos kings, and one day would return to the desert …

In its cracked, somewhat desperate way, Zaki’s nightly gatherings on his houseboat feel … well, civilized, in an Old World way that the surrounding Egypt of lucy reads adrift on the nilethe 1960s no longer feels to his characters. Office troubles feel somehow intrusive to characters like these, and when at one point Zaki reflects pointedly on this:

Refreshed by a cold shower, Anis gave himself up to the sunset. A somnolent, all-pervasive calm reigned. Flocks of pigeons made a white horizon over the Nile. If he could only invite the Director General to the houseboat, then he would be guaranteed a life as peaceful as the sunset, free of its present rankling thorns. He sipped the last of the bitter black coffee. He had mixed a little magic into it, and now he licked out the dregs with his tongue.

The book stumbles only when Mahfouz complicates it with a little action and some resulting tragedy. Somebody is killed, and suddenly the peaceful confidence of Zaki’s evenings is polluted with tension and suspicion. Mahfouz handles it with an even-keeled confidence, but the second half of the book doesn’t feel nearly as natural as the first half – it feels predictable, in a way that intelligent authors tend to be only when they’re allowing themselves to doubt their intelligence. Perhaps Mahfouz’s editors doubted that a novel entirely comprised of druggy late-night ramblings would find an audience? Or perhaps Mahfouz wanted to comment on the essential unpreparedness of such ramblings to deal with crises in the real world? I’ve never read Rasheed El-Enany’s biography of the man (although I’ve heard it praised, I’ve yet to encounter it on the bargain carts of my beloved Brattle Bookshop), so I don’t know.

But I’m not sure knowing would help – I think I’d still find myself, much like Anis Zaki, savoring the warm, effusive nights of the book’s first half over anything that followed.

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