REMEMBERING NAGUIB SURUR: An alternative review of Mahfouz

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Monday 24 Oct 2011

Surur's critique of the first volume in Mahfouz's trilogy, compiled over four years, demonstrates both the poet's keen eye for artistic value and his ability to put creative integrity above all else


Rehla fi Thulatheyet Naguib Mahfouz (A Journey in Naguib Mahfouz’s Trilogy) by Naguib Surur, Cairo: Dar El-Shorouk, 2007. pp.297

Even 33 years after his passing, Naguib Surur still inspires wonder when readers follow his writing and consider the work that remains unpublished, including correspondence with friends such as Karam Motawe, the renowned director and actor. Among Surur’s writing that remains unpublished are two books he prepared before passing away, as well as the collection of articles published in various newspapers that require gathering and documenting.

This book comprises a collection of studies Surur began writing in 1959 for the Lebanese National Culture periodical, and continued to add to until 1963. The first edition of the book was published in Beirut by Dar Al-Fikr in 1989, after being collected and documented by the leftwing Lebanese critic Mohamed Dakroub, while it only came out in Egypt in 2007, by Dar Al-Shorouk.

The first thing to note is that the number of pages exceeds that of its subject, Mahfouz’s Bein Al-Kasreen (Palace Walk), the first book of the trilogy which Surur focused on for his study. Surur mentioned in the last pages of the study his intention to continue the journey with the remaining two books, Kasr Al-Shouk, and Al-Sokkareya. This was commented on by Dakroub in the Lebanese edition of 1989, saying, “It seems that Surur never wrote those two sections of his journey through the trilogy, although he started outlining them. And who knows, maybe it will appear among many other lost pages and be material for a new book.”

Significantly, Surur wrote his essays between the years 1959 and 1963, a time when Mahfouz was an unknown writer, before he had attracted the attention of literary critics. Mahfouz back then was not known to have any particular political affiliation, including to the left, from which he was keen to show his distance. At the time, Abdel Nasser was waging his purging of leftists, which reached its peak early in 1959 when all identifiable communists were rounded up and detained in Kharga Oasis prison for five years. Surur escaped such a fate as he was outside of Egypt at the time, studying in the Soviet Union.

Although Mahfouz was not part of the leftwing current, and though this decade was marked by the harshest police campaign against leftists, Naguib Surur insisted on completing this critical study of nearly 300 pages through the lens of Marxist literary theory. The study also drew on the works of notable Marxists, including Karl. He was able to compare Mahfouz to a number of international novelists and playwrights.

Throughout its 11 sections, the study details Surur’s critiquing of Bein Al-Kasreen as an introduction to Mahfouz’s wide and rich world, with all its troubles and complications. The critic does not hide his poetic nature when he remarks: “And to prepare ourselves for the journey, for it’s a long journey into a heart that hugs all our history, generations and our society, bearing our case, experience and feelings; the big and the minute, carrying all within tender wings.”

Unlike many leftist critics in the late 1950s, who usually took on the work of other leftwing writers, Surur chose Naguib Mahfouz’s works despite the latter’s not showing any indication in his books of leftwing, or even liberal, tendencies. And while those leftwing authors, celebrated by leftist critics, never attained any major artistic achievement, it leaves us to realise that they were mistaken in celebrating not-so-great talents just because of their political stance.

But Surur had a greater vision and realised that the relation between the political and social identity of an artist and their creative work is not mechanical; creativity is not just a reflection of a political stance.

Short link: