Naguib Mahfouz,
The Dreams
(Anchor, 2009)

Naguib Mahfouz is considered the most important Egyptian writer of the 20th century. His first novel appeared in 1939, and by his death in 2006 he had published some 30 novels, more than 100 short stories and numerous articles and occasional pieces. Many of his novels were adapted to film, and his audience spanned the Arabic-speaking world.

The Dreams is, quite simply, what its name describes: a dream diary, a gallery of thoughts and images from those times when our subconscious takes over, most of them a page or less. They are spare, uninflected narratives stripped to bare essentials, some merely sketches, others fully outlined stories with messages we can almost decipher. The majority were originally published in the Cairo magazine Nisf al-dunya between 2000 and 2006, with a few appearing in the Cairo daily al-Ahram in December 2005.

There is, needless to say, a strong element of surreality in these pieces, the product of their unadorned language and the opaque motivations of their inhabitants -- nothing is explained here, merely related, such as "Dream 23" in which the narrator sees a man on the street and begins to follow him. Distracted, he forgets about the man, only to discover the man is now following him, and although he resolves to stop and confront the man, he finds his steps quickening until he reaches his own home, where he pauses, convinced that the man is inside. Or "Dream 196," in which the narrator and his fellows are lunching with their mentor when the are seized by the police and held without charges and without explanation for six months -- and then released.

The subjects of these pieces are as varied as anyone else's dreams -- the loves of his life, his neighbors, his work, the life of the streets -- and each becomes a cryptic metaphor (one believes) pointing to something larger. I suspect there are as many interpretations possible here as there are interpreters, perhaps more -- there's a lot to be read into these small narratives.

This is, however, a book to be taken in small doses -- there is no discernible overarching structure, no larger narrative line that would give coherence to this collection as a whole. The unity is in concept, the fascination is in unraveling the small mysteries Mahfouz describes, insofar as they can be unraveled.

book review by
Robert M. Tilendis

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