Sunday, December 21, 2008

Karnak Cafe' by Naquib Mahfouz

Karnak Cafe by Naquib Mahfouz is a hundred page socio-political thriller. Mahfouz's characters gather together in Karnak Cafe, run by a former belly dancer. The regular customers include old men like the narrator, who remember Egypt before 1952 revolution and remember the belly dancer in her prime. The regular customers also include three university students, who are rooted in the present, without a bittersweet nostalgia for past that old people carry within them. Together the cast converses about religion, love, politics and forms the family of Karnak Cafe.

Then one day the students disappear, and when they return, their selves are transformed irreversibly. While the government throws them into prison again and again, their outside world is transformed by the 1967 war. Many years later, the narrator reconstructs the background stories of the three students, who loose their idealism, innocence and zest for life in face of harsh tortures inflicted on them. In a chilling climax, the torturer of these students joins the community of Karnak Cafe, and presents his own disillusionment with the system.

The complexity of times is captured brilliantly in the narrative that follows the personal stories of the protagonists. By presenting social, political and economic tragedies through prism of personalities, Mahfouz creates a compelling and unforgettable novella. The nightmarish Karnak Cafe is a must read, contemporary novel which for me ranks along with Blindness by Saramago and Toni Morrison novels.

No comments: