Book Review: King Elwy’s Tragedy

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Wednesday 30 Sep 2020

Haggag Addoul’s latest novel is one that positions him squarely as one of the most remarkable of Egypt’s present-day writers


Maasat El-Malek Elwy (King Elwy’s Tragedy) by Haggag Addoul, (Cairo: Al-Masriah Al-Lebnaniah Publishing House), 2018

Can you imagine the famous “One Thousand and One Mights” mixed with Game of Thrones, Hamlet, Cane and Abel and Don Quixote all together? Haggag Addoul, the Nubian Alexandrian novelist, attempted to reach just that mix in his latest novel, “King Elwy’s Tragedy”. He has given us a novel that takes the reader to a different dimension in time and space.

The novelist introduces the Seven Rivers Kingdom, where four families of the same ancestors control power and wealth in and are in a constant state of rivalry for more power, wealth and decadence.

The time is the Middle Ages, where people fought with swords, rode horses and attacked commercial caravans. The setting is the palaces of the rulers where secrets are hidden, murders occur at the hand of unknown killers, and arranged marriages between the second and third generations of the top families are planned, even though historically there have been wars and bloody differences among them.

The purpose is to guarantee control of wealth and power. Conspiracies abound to eliminate potential threats to the king’s power and authority. We are transported back to the time of slaves, concubines and slave women who bend to the will of men. Potions promise increase men’s virility; nights of orgies follow — feasts from pre-religion days where in one night all is allowed.

All women are for all men dependent on their desires and wishes. For one night people wear masks to become someone else — someone with no inhibitions. Perhaps a king who wants to be insulted freely by his subjects, or a princess who wants to entertain as a dancer, or another who takes a Bedouin lover in spite of prevailing low regard for desert inhabitants. So many other details take the reader away from this world to an imaginary time of rich and outrageous stories.

The details are fantastic, between intrigues that are planned slowly and lines that converge in a way that surprises the reader, to personalities that are drawn in amazing detail, leaving the reader to wonder if such epic persons really existed, and maybe wanting them to exist. It is a different world where basic desires are raw, life is harsh for commoners, and we feel the continuous injustices they are suffering under.

Human life had little value if you were a “normal” person with no wealth or power, while pleasurable for the privileged few borne of a limited genetic pool deemed noble. Yet, due to greed and obsession with power, these lives, too, become a series of tragedies filled with crime and continuous struggles just to stay alive. The natural death is foreign to these epic personas.

Addoul is able to draw in remarkable detail a whole world, the full history of a kingdom, how it came to exist, its people, the intrigue involved, and he does this while projecting his narrative on today’s politics.

The tragedy of the king, from where the novel receives its title, is that he was unfit to rule. His father intended for his younger brother to become king instead of him. Prince Salwy, a courageous knight, is loved by the army and the people while his brother Elwy is unpopular and turned out to be a weak ruler. His woes compound.

His wife, who he loved, preferred the younger prince. That the latter didn’t love her back turned her into a bitter wife and person. Subsequently she led the conspiracies to get rid of Salwy, though the question of his murder remains unsolved until the end of the novel. Eventually the king's nightmares over his brother’s death lead him to take up his his sword and fight invisible enemies, not unlike Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

Living with the guilt of crime or greed for power can take its toll on the perpetrator. But whether it does or not depends on the person. Some appear able to live without conscience. Meanwhile, relationships between lovers are shown from various perspectives. The intimate encounter between the Bedouin prince Abdel Rehim and the masked dancer is described with passion, love and heat. When Abdel Rehim was eventually able to reach her bedroom, she gave him her heart, body and her heartbreaking story. The reader can feel every kiss and touch.

The dialoguem on the other handm between Shakour and Princess Zat El-Hema — Salwy’s widow — is astounding. “I love you like no man has ever loved a woman before … and I love you like no woman has ever loved a man before or after.” Such a conversation between two lovers is the dream of men and women alike. While it nearly never occurs in real life, all hope to find it. Addoul has put it in words for all to strive for.

The novel was written in airtight style. Addoul mesmerises the reader with the kingdom’s history, personalities past, and how it explains their current behaviour. In a dramatic end, the Bedouins escape death at the last minute after being fooled by the king’s entourage. Their main purpose was to extort money from the king in return of giving safe passage to commercial caravans that cross their territories. Such a demand could only be accepted by a weak king, which he really was.

The reader was rooting for the Bedouin prince all the way, especially that the writer drew him as an impressive knight on horseback, noble in his behaviour. But eventually the naïve prince was entrapped by the king’s men. The fact that he escaped suggests the possibility of a sequel.

King Elwy’s Tragedy is a tour de force that positions Haggag Addoul as one of the most remarkable novelists in Egypt today.

About the writer

Haggag Addoul, born in 1944 in Alexandria to Nubian parents, worked in the Aswan High Dam project (1963-1967) and served in the Egyptian Army from 1967 to 1974, participated in the War of Attrition and the 1973 War. He started to write in 1984, at the age of 40, and since has won numerous literary awards and wrote more than 40 novels, plays and short stories. 

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