I recently read Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building for this month’s group read over at Slaves of Golconda; indeed, I finished it weeks ago, but have been too busy with my house renovations to write a post; today, for example, I spent several hours scraping 18 layers of wallpaper off brick.
Well, that’s what I’ve been telling myself; the fact is, I can’t think of almost anything to say about this novel. It was alright; it mildly irked me and mildly moved me but mostly failed to register an impression at all.
Like Rohan, I found myself, to my surprise, quite touched by the fragile tenderness Busayna and Zaki ultimately create in spite of the hardness of everyone around them. Their unlikely affair made the rest of the book, which generally seemed flatly allegorical to me, something more complicated and more interesting than a thinly veiled commentary on Egypt’s particular political situation in 1990. If that’s what it is; I’m afraid I don’t know enough about Egypt to be certain if my hunch about this novel is correct; I do know that I think as a novel about individual human characters, it’s mostly unconvincing except, like I said, with regard to Busayna and Zaki–but only when they’re together. Their narrative paths, prior to their convergence, didn’t interest me much.
Like Stefanie, I found Al Aswany’s (or his narrator’s) lectures on what makes women happy, and weird notions about how homosexuality happens, to be alternately unpalatable and shockingly dull. Al Aswany abandons such outdated philosophizing about what makes the ladies and the gays tick about halfway through the novel, and it becomes increasingly readable; but this shift also makes the novel quite inconsistent overall. And while I don’t know how much quality was either lost or gained by the work of the translator, I’m pretty sure that the inconsistencies in focus–humans generally vs. carefully thought out characters–are the author’s responsibility entirely.
More damning than either flat characters or an irritatingly unstable tone, however, is that I’ve already forgotten much of The Yacoubian Building. It’s not sticking with me; it’s made no particular impression on my brain save for Busayna and Zaki. I’m fairly sure that in five years time the only way I’ll be able to say with any certainty that I ever even read this novel is by checking back here. And that’s a damned shame.
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It is a rather forgettable book, I agree. Someone commented on my post that he had read it a few years ago and remembered almost nothing about it. It was a bestseller in Egypt, maybe it feels more relevant there, but doesn’t quite have enough going for it to translate beyond the local.