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Mahfouz' 'Echoes': virtue vs. life


"Echoes of an Autobiography," by Naguib Mahfouz. Doubleday. 118 pages. $19.95

Naguib Mahfouz writes in his novels of Cairo but always casts that overbright, crowded, exhausting megalopolis in shadow. Mahfouz' Cairo is a maze of alleys and muffled interiors. Characters are choked by dust, choked by poverty, by deadening jobs. Now, in this unsettling, affecting collection of parables presented as "echoes" of autobiography, Mahfouz explores old age and memory. He examines them as if these were other wondrous, mysterious cities, where the sounds again are muffled, the shadows darker.

Mahfouz is 85, the chronicler of Egypt's latest century of disappointment and waste and impotence. Winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature, he has never fully recovered from being attacked outside his home in 1994 and stabbed in the neck. "Echoes," though, is not an "Egyptian" book, no more than the biblical Book of Proverbs is only about the ancient Israelites. He has written an austere, epigramic meditation on the dusk of life. There is a darkening sky containing fine points of light, though he suggests that they are difficult to see through eyes weakened by age.

"Echoes" is deceptively small scale - about 220 short passages, few of them as long as a full page - but it has great cumulative power. In each first sentence is as much promise as the first sentence of a novel; the beginnings are long, bright suggestive strokes of color, evoking a fully lived life:

"In our alley there is a haunted house that no one goes near, for its door and windows are closed and it is given over to the forces of decay."

"I knew the degrees of truth in the age of creation."

"Despite myself and without any call, I was pursued by a sense of old age."

Mahfouz gently evokes the recovery of lost feelings, a true remembrance of things past. There is the gradual waking to memory, the bewilderment and then frenzy to recapture feelings - the rich, sad wisdom from loves you steeled yourself to forget. In "Echoes" people meet after a gap of decades and remember, faintly, they had once believed their bonds to be unbreakable. People shout or whisper or cry, "We were only a step away!" They remember impossible, necessary choices: "The path to virtue and heaven [or] the path of love...." That is, a choice between impossible virtue and life.

There is everywhere a sense of opportunities lost. Of desires never announced, lovemaking that was never risked. "The rain drove us into the entrance of an old house," begins the entry called "The Rain," about a man and a woman, each one's hopes kept private. "Outside was the sound of the pelting rain and the rumbling of thunder, while inside was the color of sunset. We stood opposite one another in the narrow entrance with nothing but the stairwell and our secret thoughts." It is the tragedy of reticence.

Mahfouz spent his first decade in the Cairo neighborhood called Gamaliyya, and that is the setting for many of the passages. In apparent modesty, he employs a Sheikh Abed-Rabbith al-Ta'ih as a generic wise man to utter some of the parables. It is an unnecessary though comforting device. For Mahfouz has gracefully raised the heavy curtains of an interior that is his and ours and allowed a glimpse of the darkness that approaches.

Robert Ruby, deputy foreign editor of The Sun, lived in Jerusalem for five years as the paper's Middle East correspondent. He is the author of "Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms."

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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