My reaction to the work of Naguib Mahfouz has been exceptionally mixed. I have enjoyed the light touch and raffish characters of short novels like Adrift on the Nile (my review) yet I could make no headway on the first volume of the Cairo Trilogy, which seemed almost a parody of the ponderous family epics of the lesser 19th century writers.
Arabian Nights and Days, translated from the Arabic by the veteran Denys Johnson-Davies, was captivating, yet Echoes of an Autobiography, the next work Johnson-Davies translated, is perplexing in its meaning and sometimes awkward in its language—a fault that I might have attributed to the translator if I hadn’t read his other work.
Echoes of an Autobiography was first published in 1994, when its author was 82. The consensus of the reviewers appears to be that it distills the wisdom of a lifetime. “A haunting commonplace book of tranquil wisdom,” said Kirkus. “A deep pool of wisdom,” said Publishers Weekly. “The wisdom of a great mind,” said the TLS. But when I read some of the very short proverbs, parables, and seeds of stories that make up the book, I wondered if the emperor was wearing any clothes:
She never held back from me anything lovely that she possessed, for I imbibed from the spring of beauty until I had quenched my thirst. But ungrateful exultation in that with which one has been blessed may assume the mask of discontent, and one of the signs of my frustration was that I was joyful at parting. In the course of the long path I took, regret did not leave me, and even today her skeleton gazes at me in scorn.
I found myself as a child wandering uncertainly in the street. In my hand I had a millieme, but I had completely forgotten what my mother had told me to buy. I tried to bring it to memory but failed. I was nonetheless certain that what I had gone out to buy did not cost more than a millieme.
Readers who pick up this book, as I did, thinking it will be a memoir will be disappointed, though, especially in the early pages, there are first-person stories of childhood that may (or may not) be authentic. Those with a high tolerance for mystification and ambiguity may enjoy it.