Echoes of an Autobiography
by Naguib Mahfouz

Doubleday, Transworld Publishers, 1997
122 pp., $22.95
ISBN: 0 385 48555 7

Review by Ann Skea

Ann Skea is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, Australia)

"These pieces are meditations which echo that
which was, has been, and is the writer Mahfouz"

-- Nadine Gordimer

This is not a conventional autobiography, rather it is a sequence of reflections from a mind which is both subtle and deep. The plaudits for Mahfouz's work which are quoted on the back of the dust-jacket refer to his fiction and are misleading here, but the metaphor of the title is exact. From the murmurous details of his daily life, Mahfouz's memory echoes back to him repeated, sometimes fragmentary, messages from which he seeks meaning and understanding.

From the brief biography at the end of the book, one can recognise places, events and situations which underlie many of these pieces. 'The Lights', for example, which describes a film-making scene where, amidst all the drama, "The writer stood in the corner far from the lights, listening and following, no one paying him any attention", is surely drawn from personal observation as well as having other meanings. But there is a universal quality to these pieces which makes such identification unimportant. And the presentation of the pieces as simple tales of commonplace events (which, yet, are of unique importance to the participants) each with a title which captures the essence of the piece, resembles the methods of Sufi teaching.

So, these pieces are brief glimpses of life - perhaps Mahfouz's, perhaps Everyman's - which are presented as fables, parables, allegories and aphorisms. They are concerned with the particularities of life, and with its essence, with love, death, faith, politics, morality: in short - with the human condition, which has always been the theme of Mahfouz's novels and stories. They are ironic, sad, funny, thoughtful and immensely varied.

There are challenges here for the Western reader used to arguments which proceed step-by-step, according to the laws of logic, and to metaphors which precisely parallel their subject. With my own limited understanding of the more associative, Oriental, way of thinking, there were times when Mahfouz's meaning escaped me. When this happened, I would turn to the latter half of the book, to the sayings of Mahfouz's own sage, Sheikh Abd-Rabbih al-Ta'ih ("the stray one"), which are invariably clear, precise, and often very funny:

" 'Offering Condolences'
A man came to me complaining and I asked him what was
wrong. He said "I am drowning in the sea of pleasures,
and yet I am not satisfied".
I said to him, "I shall visit you on the day when you
are satisfied, so that I may offer my condolences."

Nadine Gordimer's introduction to the book is a very helpful guide to understanding Mahfouz, although initially it reads like a university lecture (which it perhaps is). She is astute and informative about Mahfouz's writing, his concerns, his humour, his imagination and his wisdom (although, perhaps because she is in awe of 'the stray one', she pronounces this last word "with hesitation").

There will be many who prefer Mahfouz's novels and short stories to this newly translated work, which is his first published nonfiction. Like life, Echoes of an Autobiography is not always easy. But as Sheikh Abd-Rabbih al-Ta'ih says "Life appears to be a chain of struggles, tears and fears, and yet it has a magic that enchants and intoxicates". So, too, does this book have its delights.

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