Monday, November 11, 2013

Egypt: "Autumn Quail" by Naguib Mahfouz

Autumn Quail is a sort of Egyptian Hamlet, without the ghost. The main character, Isa, is a rising bureaucrat when a coup occurs (1952) at the start of the Egyptian independence movement. He is tried by the new government and convicted of taking bribes. Thenceforth, he cannot make up his mind about anything. He speaks about his "split personality" between what he knows he ought to do, and what he feels like doing, which is exactly nothing.

He remains loyal to the deposed King Farouk and spends his time in cafes, clubs, and with prostitutes. Relatives and friends offer advice and to help find him a job. He enters a loveless -- even feeling-less -- marriage because the woman has money. One friend stages what we'd call these days an "intervention" to get Isa to stop gambling so much. He changes nothing. After four years of this aimlessness, his "wake up call" is the discovery that just after his ouster, he fathered a child with a "Corniche girl" (prostitute), who has since married someone who cares for her and the girl. This revelation awakens his long-dormant feelings and sense that he has responsibilities, but the novel leaves the reader uncertain about how this might change any of his (in)actions. We see him last in a midnight conversation with younger man who supports the new government. The man leaves, and Isa thinks, "I could catch up with him...if I didn't spend any  more time hesitating."  Isa leaps up awkwardly and hurries after him.

As someone who really doesn't "get" symbolism, I probably missed the point of this novel. The preface from the translators says, "Isa is of course a symbol of all that the immediate past stands for." They add further that the pursuit of the young man at the end is a sign that Isa is going to catch up to the times, as well. I'm glad I read the preface.

I did find fascinating the depictions of relations between men and women within the novel, which are so different from what we hear about in Egypt now. In our terms, in the early 1950s, things were very "western." Isa's fiancee in the beginning is allowed to meet privately with him, although at formal events such as betrothal ceremonies and funerals, women are separated from the men. Later in the book, an older woman and her grown daughter visit Isa in order to buy a house from him. They are accompanied by a male real estate agent but no one else. Isa follows girls on the streets in order to watch their legs.  One photo of one 1954 street scene shows an example that supports Mahfouz's text, and the fellow on the bike might even be watching the girl's legs.

The title of the book comes from a visit Isa makes to Alexandria in the months after his downfall.

 " could see the sea in the distance, where October had bewitched it, exchanging it into a daydream. You could see the bevies of quail as well, swooping in to land, exhausted at the end of their long, predestined, illusorily heroic flight" p. 66.

Maybe Isa is the quail, exhausted at the end of a long, illusorily heroic flight. Maybe the revolution is the long flight. I cannot say -- though I find that passage and others to be quite beautifully written.

Quotation from 1985 edition from the American University in Cairo Press. Mahfouz published this book in 1962.


  1. I marvel at (1) the speed of your reading, and (2) your offbeat selection of countries. I am still waiting for my book of Europe's smallest to arrive

  2. I'm the same way with symbolism! I need to be discussing a book in a group or read the preface, like you did, to "get" it. Even after reading for so long, it's not something that comes easily!

    I saw that someone on Facebook recommended Jhumpa Lahiri. I don't know if you have reviewed a book about India yet, but she is a fantastic writer! I read The Namesake over the summer, and it was fantastic.

    Keep it up!

  3. Thanks Miss Ari for suggestions and confirmation missing symbolism is a way of reading, not a missing piece. Appreciate your feedback!

  4. Your reviews are super! So interesting in themselves that I'm galvanized to try to find at least some of those books in our library - or ask for them to be ordered.