Monday 25 April 2011

Reading ramble: The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

As I enter into the last quarter of my time here in India it becomes a time for thinking through options and making decisions about what to do next. No, I haven't made any firm decisions yet, except as I am enjoying blogging and loving the title as I do ( thanks Dean) I am going to keep blogging here and eventually just loose the subtitle.

With this in mind I am going to start by expanding the reading rambles in this blog from just covering Indian literature to everything I read. So my GoodReads reviews will move from the left hand panel to become main blog posts. So here is the first. I hope you enjoy them.

The Yacoubian BuildingThe Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Yacoubian Building may not be a great novel, but it certainly is an important one. It broke taboos when it first came out with its sexual frankness, and it tackles systemic corruption and political extremism.

There are lots of characters and some readers may find that confusing and may prefer more depth, but I think the range of characters is required to show the tenants and associated of the Building as a microcosm of Egyptian society and provide the many platform the author needs to address the various themes. He is not after in depth character building prose, he gives just enough in the way of character and plot development for the reader to get the picture and so to see the socio-political point he is making. I have heard somewhere that when the book first came out folks were trying to specifically identify particular real life individuals with the characters!

The authors treats us to several vignettes, woven together by providing short episodic sections on each characters story in turn – ….....SPOILER ALERT……there’s the story of aspiring student Taha and his transformation from innocent into to radical, there is Basuyna ‘s transformation from innocent through sexual-economic exploitation to affection, of Zaki’s move form lothario to husband, and others. Each has a catalyst, common themes of exploitation, corruption making one ask the questions how do people survive amidst endemic corruption? Do the exploited exploit there exploitation to get by and hereby self perpetuate the system?

But there are also lining themes of vengeance and violent physical and verbal retribution – .....SPOILER ALERT……Hatim’s verbal abusive outburst when Abduh attempts to finally leave surfaces his inherent unequal view of their status in their relationship, Is Abduh’s violent reaction the only one he can have? How different is this to Taha’s seeking vengeance against his torturers? Likewise the manner in which Hagg Azzam treats Saoud when she” breaks contract” and becomes pregnant. Is their intolerance, their economic, social and political corruption, leading to violence or threats of retribution (eg Big Man’s final threats to Hagg Azzam after his request to drop the percentage of the protection money), indicative of a moral malaise, or moral collapse or a moral vacuum and the creation of a new morality? Would we/anyone make the same choices as Taha, as Saouda or Abduh did when faced with the same situation?

Zaki and Hatim’s lives are rooted in a previous era, a more tolerant, more European focused Egypt. Are they seeing the past through rose tinted glasses? The finales to their stories in some ways pose two outcomes for Egypt itself – each story involves a sexual encounter across the lines – .....SPOILER ALERT……Hatim’s into homosexuality and he dies a violent death still intolerant even though his lifestyle would indicate tolerance on the surface whilst Zaki’s foray with a much younger woman blossoms and ends happily.

Yes there are some good story elements in this book, but it is a book which poses more questions than it answers, indeed that’s probably the reason for writing it and also the best reason for reading it.

1 comment:

  1. Although not about India reading this book is very topical in that one of its recurrent themes is bribery and corruption - See news articles on the Indian Telecomms Corruption Scandel and the Commonwealth Games Corruption Scandel and they will give you some insight into one of the big problems in this country from top to toe.