El-Leqaa El-Akhir (The Last Encounter) by Youssef Nabil, El Mahroussa Publishing House, 2019
“You’re why cavemen chiseled on walls,” was a memorable quote from the 1997 Jack Nicholson movie As Good as it Gets, where one of the characters used the line to describe the beauty of starlet Helen Hunt.
This line is what came to mind after finishing 'The Last Encounter', the fourth novel by Youssef Nabil. The motivation and inspiration for writing the novel was a woman. She formed and shaped the main character's ideas and personality and her story is that of beauty and tragedy at the same time. It seems that the writer decided to follow the old literature tradition where pain and misfortune produce the best literary work in our world, and he certainly succeeded.
The novel touches on a tragedy that Egyptian society turns a blind eye on: love relations between members of different religions. When a Christian man loves a Muslim woman, what is to be done? It is a problem for everyone in both families and in general they do not have a happy ending. He kept the solution a mystery until the last chapter, which makes the reading process a joy with the hope of an innovative solution.
Nour the main character vanishes, he simply left, no note, no clear destination and no clear reason. Digging into his life through a police officer leads to the eventual realisation of his reasoning for leaving and it is revealed part by part in a detective-style novel. We discover in the end that Nour is a writer, a well-hidden fact that is revealed towards the end, adding to the novel’s suspense.
The narration takes three forms in the novel. The first part has the different characters tell the stories from their point of view and inserting the chronological development of the love story and the personal development of each character. The vanished person, the police officer looking for him Magdy, and the girl who fell in love with him, Hanan, each tell their stories, their pain, confusion and the challenges they try to overcome in their personal life while attempting to solve the mystery of the vanished. The attractive part is showing the development of the romantic relationship as well as the inside life of a police officer who suffers from betraying his principals during his long career in order to keep the job and the privileges that come with it.
In addition, the Christian theology parts were discussed in a classy, rebellious way when Nour talks about his family life and how he was forced to follow certain rules in both childhood and adulthood.
“If Jesus had an enemy it would be the Church,” strong words that Nour tells a priest in church. He criticises various rituals and accuses the church of not helping the poor and caring for its own interests. The Church in Egyptian literature is normally either ignored or pampered, criticising is normally a daring issue that writers prefer not to deal with, yet Youssef manages to address it in a non-offensive way.
The second part is the memoires of "the lady," the one who inspires, who motivates the chiselling and the writing, the one who makes life beautiful. She is the neighbour of Nour’s family in the same apartment building. A childless, loving woman who simply fell in love with the young boy and treated him like the son she never had. She started watching him going to school, learned his schedule, and brought him books secretly until she became his mother’s friend.
A Muslim woman, a translator, interacting well with her Christian neighbours who were surprised at first to realise that she is not of the same religion (the whole building had Christian families), then she became the mother he needed to help him evolve.
The encounter mentioned in the title is with this woman; intelligently the writer does not give her a name, she is simply the idea of the woman rather than a specific person, someone who entered Nour’s life and made it a better one. The last encounter is with the lady in an epic ending of one of the most loveable characters in the novel (it shall not be disclosed in here). She is a strong courageous woman who stands up for Nour when his mother could not, overcoming her own personal problems and guiding him into becoming all he can be; someone that we all want in our lives and certainly need it as well.
The narration took a different turn in the final part of the novel. The story lines meet and the various missing parts and intentional wholes are clarified in a way that makes a repeated reading a joyful, worthy experience.
The writer throughout the novel uses the flash forward and flashback techniques when the three main characters speak about themselves and the situations they come across. The story becomes more straight forward when the lady tells her story, then gathering the various parts of the puzzle in the closing part was done in a systematic and creative way where the youngster becomes a mature man and reflects on his experience in life. The writer mastered his tools to get his ideas across and certainly carved his name as a storyteller.