(Translated from Arabic by Christina Phillips–originally published in Arabic in 1987)
Reviewed by Beth Cummings
Prolific Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz, was one of the most prominent Arabic writers of the 20th century. He published nearly forty novels and many more short stories. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 and died in 2006. Morning and Evening Talk was his final chronicle of Cairo.
Morning and Evening Talk is a very unusual book that was done in a rather experimental fashion. Mahfouz created a sort of biographical dictionary of the members of a sprawling Egyptian family – covering five generations and two hundred years of Egyptian history. However, the book is not done in a chronological manner. Instead, Mahfouz wrote small vignettes, similar to obituaries, about each family member and arranged them alphabetically by first name according to the Arabic alphabet. Because these are all Egyptian/Arabic names, it is extremely difficult to keep track of the people.
Each vignette is only one to three pages long. They are structured something like this: Person 1 was born in neighborhood to Person 2 and Person 3, the third daughter in a family of six children, Person 4, Person 5, Person 6, Person 7, and Person 8. She attended school and at age fifteen was married to Person 9, the son of Person 10 and Person 11 and the nephew of Person 12. She and Person 9 had three children, Person 13, Person 14, and Person 15. There are some interesting bits about Person 1’s likes, dislikes and life in general as well as a reference or two to historical events in Egypt at the time. Then Person 1 dies.
Each of these “Persons” has his or her own story in the book, as do their parents and siblings, in-laws and children.
It would have been nice if Mahfouz or his translator had provided some kind of family tree, so that the reader could get the various family members sorted out while reading. There is a brief glossary of Egyptian historical events that helps a bit, but keeping names such as Hasim, Hakim, Hasan, Hamid and Habiba from being confused was difficult. Keeping Amr, Aql and Abd and Ata straight was next to impossible.
The book has some lovely passages and interesting insights, but on the whole it is not a book that would appeal to many readers.
Armchair Interviews agrees.