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They gather on the houseboat. The water pipe makes its way around the circle of people, the drug a withdrawal from the business of life. Yet Mahfouz is explicit in voicing his warning not to simply view Adrift on the Nile as the fiction of escape. It is a novel of ideas, exploring the tension of an absurd world that demands seriousness. There are poignant echoes of the philosophy of Camus and Sartre as the existential drama transcends its Egyptian roots.
The novel focuses on Anis, a civil servant who completes the mundane tasks of a mindless work before retreating to the water pipe and the houseboat. For him, the drug represents oblivion of thought. Anis is removed from what we would regard as the real, from current affairs, news, art, culture and people. This apathetic ideal evokes the Absurd that seems to be Mahfouz’s primary interest. Those that join him each evening are important figures in the Egyptian world, yet their jobs are simply a means to fund this lifestyle. Pervading the novel is a questioning of the importance we place on thought, intellect and art. The hallucinatory figures that occupy Anis’s mind, Cleopatra, Caesar, a great whale in the Nile, are as real as the cultural elite of Egypt he spends his time with. The novel never becomes preoccupied with hallucinations or drugs, instead they are used as a foil to the more sombre and tangible world.
This is then thrown into crisis by the arrival of Samara, a journalist looking to study and befriend the group. Her interest is seriousness, to this effect Samara claims that ‘the major theme of the drama is the Serious versus the Absurd’. Mahfouz also uses the introduction of this outsider to spark an engaging narrative that progresses from the philosophy that dominates much of the novel. In some places there is a distinct lack of characterisation that can alienate a reader, but the development of Samara and Anis combats this.
Mahfouz’s Nobel prize has made him accessible to a much wider audience, but rarely do people read beyond his famed Cairo trilogy. This slim existential novel has all the hallmarks of a the great European writers of the post-War period, yet with the addition of Egyptian exoticism and its particular political context. Mahfouz deserves to be as widely read as his more famed contemporaries.
Adrift on the Nile is published by Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group.
Read Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club if you enjoy this.