Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building

Either translated dully by Humphrey Davies, or translated faithfully to the dull stylings of author Alaa Al Aswany, the latter’s 2002 The Yacoubian Building is a failed structural precursor to the much superior Last Man in Tower, by Aravind Adiga. Adiga’s novel, set in Mumbai (and reviewed at this site), begins with a dramatis personae, a dozen or so characters all living in different apartments in the same building where their idiosyncrasies, colours, stories, and complicated relationships come to life. Not so with Aswany’s novel.

Cairo’s Yacoubian building is much more class-divided than is its counterpart in Adiga’s novel, yet the possibilities for economic illumination and dramatic thrust are missed by Aswany. Many of the characters rarely (or don’t at all) mingle and interact, so I don’t understand why the novel was set up in this way. Still, as a narrative squarely planted in realist soil, it promised at least a peek into a corner of the world English-speaking readers rarely get to experience. It didn’t deliver, and the problems are multiple.

The prose is either boilerplate he-moves-here-she-moves-there, melodramatic, didactic, or logorrheic, sometimes the latter three at once. I weary to provide quotes, but if you need examples, just flip to most any page, especially towards the last half of the book where the histrionics are ratcheted to ten. As in any melodrama, the ending is predictable, or should I say the many ends, since the five or so (almost entirely) segmented stories steam away in a pressure-cooking pot, and with as much mechanical fascination. In what is perhaps the main story thread, Taha’s sweetheart since childhood has left him in order to secure needed cash for her family by accepting the sexual contract of your standard lecher with means. Taha’s commitment to Islam is intensified, and in an ending logistically impossible, psychologically unbelievable, and predictable two hundred pages prior, his demise, in a spray of bullets, leads to this bizarre passage: “Then it seemed to him as though the agony was diminished little by little and he felt a strange restfulness engulfing him and taking him up into itself. A babble of distant sounds came to his ears—bells and sounds of recitation and melodious murmurs—repeating themselves and drawing close to him, as though welcoming him into a new world.” This isn’t irony, and one doesn’t know how much of this psychic heaven-merging propaganda was made necessary by implicit censorship, or how much was Aswany’s attempt at giving a romantic veneer to the earlier, grittier scenes which at least had the good faith of legit interaction.

The dialogue, too, is horrendous. Each character speaks, no matter what the unique level of education, emotional sensibility, or life experience, in the same stilted and (at times) bombastic formulations. The novel is a parade of newspaper ideas set in the mouths of convenient cut-out characters. Once the outlines are set, it’s like pulling cords dangling from their backs to get the appropriate canned response.

I’m tough on this book because it’s an easier sell to an international audience who may tend to overlook these egregious miscues in order to focus on the ‘exotic’, as well as on the putatively unique issues the novel involves itself with. But any decent fictional work has to transcend its cultural and geographical particulars. The Yacoubian Building was written by a dentist-journalist. The publisher should have pulled it from production, and suggested it as multi-issue filler in a newspaper, but, as the novel’s deficits (hysterics! mysterious people and places!) make clear, it was the perfect springboard to a movie adaptation. Ka-ching!

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