Book review: The secret world of Alexandria

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Sunday 26 May 2013

The latest novel by Egyptian writer Nael El-Touky navigates an imaginary underworld in the coastal city of Alexandria, mixing humour and misery in a lengthy epic

Women of the Quarntina

Nisa’ Al-Karantina (Women of the Karantina) by Nael El-Toukhy, Cairo: Dar Merit, 2013. 364pp.

In his latest novel, writer and journalist Nael El-Toukhy ridicules and plays with everyone, not only holding a tight grip on a world that spans over five decades, but also artfully capturing the reader, left breathless, through its entire 364 pages.

Although mention of the Egyptian revolution comes no more than once or twice, and although the novel is ostensibly written before the January 25 Revolution, it really is a revolution writing, picturing its destiny since its early days.

The fast-paced novel traces three generations of sheikhs, drug dealers, veiled women, thugs, policemen, convicts, informers and killers. In constant motion and battle they fight, sane or insane, traitors or patriots, but somehow lighthearted and sly. The reader cannot help but laugh at the grand masquerade El-Tokhy describes with brilliant talent.

Each of the three generations take up a separate section of the book. In the first section, whose events take place on the eve of the Egyptian revolution, two lovers meet — Angie and Aly. When a man is accidentally killed under the wheels of a train, the couple flee to Alexandria to hide, starting an empire that extends two further generations to the year 2064.

The reader is forced by the artistic logic from the first page to let go and navigate along a wild journey. The novel is loaded with incidences of killings and accidents where heroes die, to the extent of creating a whole new logic — hard to believe in reality, yet completely consistent with the novel’s own buildup. Battles with machine guns, the building of an empire of prostitution, drugs and stealing, all fall within the novel’s maddening logic.

Yet this logic doesn’t escape the well-maintained structure of the novel as each of its separate sections deal with families who ruled over Alexandria across multiple decades. Each generation passed on its genes to the next, expanding, destroying and reconstructing a different part of the city on the Mediterranean, eventually constructing one large mural of Alexandria that is both real and imaginary. This new Alexandria of El-Toukhy is built on madness, imagination and humour.  

In particular, humour marks an essential anchor for the novel, giving it additional glamour. For example, in the beginning of each section, the author jots down the official history of Alexandria in schoolbooks: the cosmopolitan city with its civilised expansions, whose inhabitants secure its lifestyle and battle to keep their identity and values against invaders, calling all this “nonsense.” In parallel to this "official" story there’s the world loaded with thugs and drugs and killing, which is the secret and equally true underworld of Alexandria. The two worlds intertwine despite their apparent repulsion, and this intertwining creates the popular cynical epic. In a way, in an attempt to reveal the dim reality, the author chose even more darkness, hideousness, and grossness to strip the city bare on multiple levels.

An additional element of strength in the work is the ability to maintain the thin line between emotional involvement with the novel's heroes and drifting into farce comic. Despite the large number of characters and protagonists, the author is still capable of playing skillfully with each.

The novel ends with a truly surrealistic chapter on “Women Empowerment,” presenting two worlds: the first a large company that digs tunnels and organises trips between the two ends of the world; the second, the underground metro started in the early 2050s and whose world becomes the headquarters of the mafia and the government together, and where battles and massacres take place continuously. The author nearly leaves his novel with the battles ongoing.

This book is certainly a significant addition for its young author, following his equally impressive novel, The Crazy 2006, and is for sure a new twist in the evolution of the form of the Egyptian novel itself.

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