Wedding Song, by Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel Prize winning Egyptian author, was written in 1981 well into his writing life which began in 1932 with Old Egypt and ended with The Seventh Heaven in 2007, one year before his death.  Although Wedding Song, in its  English translation by Olive Kenny, is only 172 pages, it is complex in conception and rich in descriptions of family dysfunctionality in an undated Cairo, with recognizable markers of the middle 20th century.

Unlike The Thief and the Dogs, a novel of 20 years earlier, ( reviewed here a few weeks ago,) the narrative does not follow a straight time-line of a single character.  Instead, four first-person narratives of members of the same Cairo theater group,  describe the  events and relationships feeding into the unexpected success, and to them, scandal, of a new play, in which each sees themselves.  We don’t have  a single event as the murder in Rashoman, but years: a marriage, a son, intersecting love-affairs, a droit de seigneur, and of course the eternally perplexing question of what is invention and what is reality.

Some have referred to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury as a reference for  the structure, and even style, Mahfouz uses here.  True enough, the four narrators in both books speak in his, or her, own voice and cumulatively, complete in the end, a tale that is far from clear on the way through.  But from comments Mahfouz made about English fiction, of which –as well as French– he was a voracious reader,  it’s unlikely there is any deliberate homage to Faulkner.  He didn’t like his writing, he said.  It was “too complex.” Although he used many elements of the modern fiction of his day, he stood apart from the reshaping of the written word then going on.  “What crazy man,” he asked, “is able to read Ulysses?”

His bias was to realism even with internal monologues, “jump cuts,” and other devices.  Fiction itself was relatively new in the Arab world when he began writing.  He didn’t have many native models to follow.  Arabic story telling was embedded with traditional themes and styles, tales  of rich and poor, examples of piety, fate, luck  and God’s rewards and judgments.  Daily struggles within a community, a family or the self was not something worthy of such stories.  Mahfouz used scenes from his own life for many of his novels, perhaps even for Wedding Song, the core of which is a debate, an outraged one by some, as to whether the entirety of the play by Abbas Karam Younis, one of the narrators, and son of two others, his parents, Halima al-Kabsh and Karam Younis is real, or fiction.

The first speaker is Tariq Ramadan The Actor.  He sets us up with the main characters and central problem — the play.

“Not only has Abbas Younis persuaded me at last to accept a play of his,but I also have a feeling that it will be one of the biggest hits in the history of our theater..

…”This is no play!” I exclaim.  “It’s a confession.  It’s the truth. We ourselves are actually the characters in it.”

He could as well have been the second or third speaker for all the back-ground he gives about names or things he speaks about but which we do not know yet.

“At the sight of the coffin, a sense of defeat overwhelms me, and to everyone’s astonishment, as if it were the first coffin I had ever seen, I burst into tears.”

This coffin comes up so unexpectedly I almost wonder if there hasn’t been an editing error, a sentence or two left out.  Does the coffin appear in the play, the read-through of which  they have just finished?  Is it the actual coffin of Tahiya, a character in the play, now dead, which only appears 26 pages later?  In the end it may not matter, as the conflation of  reality and fiction is central to the novel.  In the moment of reading, confusion enters; it is more than a mystery, which we agree to suspended, confident it will be made clear,  and will be an impediment to some readers.

Imagining a theater and a scandalous play in Cairo, even in the 1980s is something of a feat for a western reader, especially reading in 2010 after years of reading about a resurgence of extremely conservative Islam.  [Mahfouz himself was stabbed in the neck by extremists in 1994, and though he survived had permanent nerve damage.]  Are there really theaters in Cairo?  Did men and women really sleep with each other before marriage?  Do husbands curse their wives as whores? Perhaps coming from the same paucity of knowledge is the surprise of the family dysfunctionality — almost as great as the Tyrone family’s in O’Neill’s Long Days Journey Into Night.

Karam Younis and his wife Halima, run a small store after being released from prison for running an illegal gambling and “meeting” house. Karam is the speaker.

I’m glad to have a customer.  It’s an excuse to avoid her.  When he’s gone, she hisses at me, “Do something.”

Go and see al-Hilaly [the producer] again,” the woman says in a louder voice.

“Go yourself,” I say sarcastically.  “You know him better than I do.”

“God have mercy on your mother!” she says, stung to fury.

“At least she wasn’t a hypocrite like you.”

Then she sighs, “You don’t love your son.  You never loved him.”

The next chapter is Halima’s.

Whenever the man [her husband] is not occupied with customers he starts talking to himself.  I daydream about things Abbas [her son] will do for me, be he has nothing to dream about.

Why don’t we keep track of the happy moments, so that afterward we will believe them?  Is he the same man  Was he really sincere?  Is he the one who said, “I am indebted to Amm Ahmad Burgal [the marriage arranger] for a joy that is almost more than a man can bear?”

I moved my head coquettishly.  “Don’t exaggerate!”

“Halima, who can be happier than a man whose heart has not been in vain?” He said it in a tone that has vanished forever. Although I didn’t love him, I loved his words, and their fervor warmed me.

The italics, throughout the book are the thoughts the narrator is directing to him or herself, sometimes embedded in non-italicized thoughts about others,  which takes a bit to understand, as the above — when she includes “I moved my head coquettishly” shows. Clearly that’s meant for us, the reader, not a recollection to herself of herself.

The English translation on the whole reads very well, with only a few places where the eye stops while the mind puzzles, as the sentence above:  “a man whose heart has not been in vain.”  Not a standard English locution, but interesting, and useful to pass on a manner of speech, a way of thought.  A good choice I think.

Another image is more of a speed bump:  “My self esteem went down like a stallion biting dust.”  It’s  nice, though it does make us stop, if only to watch the horse go down.  It’s unusual and perhaps a nice rendition of  its Arabic origin.  [I myself always prefer to keep local images as part of the translation task.]  But we say “he bit the dust” to mean he died.  Does it have the same meaning here, or just that the horse went down, to get up again?  Is it more like  “like a stallion stumbling, nose-down in the dust?”

These are of course the challenges translators face in almost every paragraph of every book, particularly those that are very inventive in their own language.  It is much more difficult to bring  non-western languages and cultures into English than, say, French or German or even Romanian.  Add to that Mahfouz’s own groundbreaking role in Egyptian fiction and his wrestling with the language of the day to get  something direct and visceral, without the centuries old embellishments and euphemisms of the traditional style and you have difficulties that will not always have the best, particular solution, even when the whole is quite acceptable; the language is not in the way except when it ought to be, by design of the author.

Wedding Song is a very impressive work, by a world class writer.  There are some difficulties along the way; it’s not a quick read to be flipped through while stirring soup.  So be prepare to be puzzled and work a little.  I made a cast of characters list to help me keep track of the unfamiliar Egyptian names.  In the end you’ll be satisfied as the last entry fits the puzzle and  the parts become a whole.  My bet is you’ll likely want to read more Mahfouz, either his shorter works, or the great Cairo Trilogy of  1956-57

“You can’t understand Egypt without Mahfouz—without his characters, with whom every reader, Arab or not, can identify.”
—Tahar Ben Jelloun

For a quick intro you could check out Adrift on the Nile, a film made from his popular 1966 “Chatter on the Nile,” taking on the decadence of the Nasser era.