It is rare to find an Egyptian novelist who writes about international issues. The purpose is normally to present Egyptian creativity to the outside world following the unwritten rule of “think local to go global”.
Many of these writers do not study or follow international events except to understand what's happening in the world. Understanding and living the feelings and the lives of "foreigners" is a hard, nearly impossible task, especially inserting them in their novels.
However, El-Asfoury embarked on that adventure in his fourth and latest novel.
The opening scene features three people sitting at a café in Pantheon City, Greece, a turnoff for an inexperienced reader.
An Egyptian novel about Greece does not really raise the interest of potential readers but the three characters sipping their drinks might just do the trick.
The writer identifies the characters as the "Thief” and his two companions Theo and Stan. The Thief disperses light, Stan creates peace and Theo spreads health. The three concepts are priceless, allowing the reader to unravel where the meeting takes place, the afterlife.
The narrative so far sounds crazy: is this going to be a fantasy story for kids or is there some substance that will get the reader hooked on the story?
The writer does not let his readers down as he takes them to the USSR in 1983 where a true heroic event went unnoticed but saved humanity from a "WWIII".
If such a war occurred, the use of nuclear weapons would be inevitable and humanity's destruction is almost certain.
If nuclear weapons were ever used again, it won't just be two bombs like the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The story deserves to be told - a radar malfunction in a Soviet station built nine stories underground led monitoring officers to believe the US was launching five nuclear warheads towards the USSR.
The story takes place during Reagan's presidency when the Cold War was quite hot.
The orders were clear in such a situation, fire back with all you've got. It was commanding officer Stanislav Petrov who used his better judgment during the moment. If the US was going to attack the USSR, why use only five warheads? Such an attack would have been with hundreds of rockets carrying death and misery.
He held back on retaliating despite a clear order to do so, averting nuclear war. The man, who saved humanity lost his wife to cancer, was put on trial, and his career of leading a prestigious Red Army unit was over.
Such a story makes the reader question basic events taught in schools all over the world and makes them wonder who the real heroes are. Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, George Washington? Are they simply military leaders like others throughout history and around the world? Who is worthy of praise? Those who conquered with armies and invaded lands or those like Stanislav who defied orders and saved the human race?
Theo is another hero who does not follow conventional guidelines. The author documents the life of Dr Theodor Bilharz, mixing imagination with reality in a beautiful, romantic style that makes the reader fall in love with the German physician who made pioneering discoveries in the field of parasitology.
Through his first position as a pathologist in Egypt, he noticed Egyptians of all ages suffer and die from parasites that exist only by the Nile and tropical areas. His discoveries lead to the establishment of tropical medicine, a new medical branch that saved Egyptians from diseases that plagued them since the dawn of history.
The author wrapped up Bilharz's life in a romantic tale with his Egyptian maid, describing life in Egypt and Germany in the Nineteenth Century. Bilharz died at the age of 37, a short life with an achievement that would last forever in the history of humanity. Again, the question rises, is Theodor Bilharz a hero? Should he be celebrated as such? Should humans re-examine the idea of a hero and who is deserving of that status?
El-Asfoury saves his best for last. After reading about these two great figures, Petrov and Bilharz, the reader must wonder about the thief and who they are. What did he steal to earn his place at the table of the greats? How does he hold such a high position in the Paradise Café?
Without spoling the ending, the thief's name is Prometheus and we will leave it to the reader's curiosity to learn about him, how he served humanity and how he is instrumental in wrapping up the novel.
The ending may or may not be satisfying to the reader but the thief is an admirable character.
The author managed to put part of his soul in this novel. There are a lot of ideas that are worth mentioning, the types that make the reader think and may be get enthused about reading more on issues that were not on their minds before experiencing the novel.
For instance, one of the characters describes heroes as those who fight to stay alive, not because they want a few extra days on Earth but because they want more happiness for those who love them.
Such kind hearted people do exist among us but they are not common in novels, movies or even day-to-day life.
The author also explains what authoritarian regimes think of their citizens; the good citizen is the one who does not think for themselves; their main quality is obedience; an awful idea practiced even in regimes who deny authoritarian tendencies.
These are just a couple of ideas among many commendable ones in the author’s work.
In Maqha Paradiso, El-Asfoury shows he is an encyclopaedic writer as various world events are among his interests.
He knows and reads much more than what he writes about, from Greek mythology to political events both famous and hidden.
El-Asfoury is living proof that there are still novelists who want their work to carry a message and open horizons for readers to form their own opinions and question the molds offered nowadays in the shallow pool of novels and books in the era of capsule knowledge.