By Alia Moustafa
Summed up in a few words: This is Egypt. Miramar, a novel by the well-known Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, has all aspects of the Egyptian culture bound in one novel. Written in the nineteen sixties, it is set in Alexandria at a Pension called Miramar. Mahfouz’s novel follows the lives of seven main characters, using a special technique in writing to show the reader every character’s perspective on the same story.
Miramar is divided into five chapters. Mahfouz chose four of the seven characters to base the chapters on. The first story-teller is Amer Wagdi, a retired journalist. He is the oldest of the Miramar lodgers and lives more in the past. He also feels neglected and forgotten. The second story-teller, Hosny Allam, is an uneducated land-owner who doesn’t do anything but sleep around and drink. The third is Mansour Bahy, a man who hates himself, thought of as a traitor and feels guilty about his friends being arrested. The fourth and final character is Sarhan Al Beheiry, who is a man from a small town, working in the government and trying to make enough money to support his family. However, these are not the only characters we encounter in Mahfouz’s novel.
In every chapter, there are three other characters we repeatedly meet: Marianna, Tolba Marzuk and Zohra. Marianna is the Greek lady who owns the Miramar pension who is a very nosey old woman. Marzuk, a lodger, is a man who has been greatly affected by the revolution and had all his property and money sequestered by the government. Lastly, Zohra, a very important character in Mahfouz’s novel; she works at the pension and whom all the men have a certain kind of emotional relationship with.
All the characters are very well presented, making them feel real. There is the gold digger, the lustful, the indifferent, the opportunist, the nostalgic and the simple. They all represent different social classes, where they each have their problems and live in their own worlds, but they all come together at a certain point. That is what interested me most about the novel.
Many would think that Miramar is a political novel; on the contrary, politics is but a background aspect of Mahfouz’s book. The novel’s plot consists of various aspects: love, greed, betrayal, guilt, nostalgia, and most importantly, murder.
What really intrigued me to keep on reading was the murder aspect. With every chapter and every perspective, I collect pieces of information in order to come to the conclusion of what happened and who was involved. That is why reading the different perspectives was important. After every event or encounter, I took pieces from each chapter to put together into a bigger picture that made it all clear.
As readers, we get to experience every emotional aspect the characters went through at the same point of the plot. I think that’s a whole different experience than reading a novel written from one perspective.
Other than the social class differences, we find that there is a generation gap between the old Miramar lodgers and the young. Wagdi, Marzuk and Marianna seem to be attached to the old days when Marianna was beautiful and had a rich husband, and when Tolba had it all, and the days when Amer was a motivated journalist. On the other hand, Hosny, Mansur, Sarhan and Zohra are trying to live in the present, to get by day-by-day, or trying to find new businesses to open. The one thing most of them seem to agree on is whether the 23rd July revolution was a good or bad thing for the Egyptian people.
Miramar is a great novel. It does not solely focus on the revolution or on politics. It does, however, focus on the daily life of different people. It shows how in Egypt there are traditions and cultural rules that the majority abide by, and yet there are some people that stray from that path and live outside the norm and that people’s intentions aren’t as they appear to be on the outside.
The author’s simplicity in presenting his ideas and the complexity of the plot shows how much skill this great author has. Mahfouz’s novels are known to be very complicated and hard to understand, but this novel is quite different and much easier to go through. It is truly a page-turner and you are constantly guessing what will happen next. I would highly recommend Miramar as a weekend read.