Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Yacoubian Building

I bought this book a while back for reasons I can't remember now, but it's the most recent choice for the Slaves of Golconda book group and so high time I read it. The novel tells the stories of multiple characters, none of whom could really be called the protagonist, since the narrative spends similar amounts of time with each story. It's the Yacoubian building that holds all the stories and the novel itself together. The Yacoubian building contains apartments that house people of many different backgrounds and classes, so through their stories we get a glimpse into various parts of Egyptian culture and experience.

There's more than the building that holds the novel together; there is also a simmering frustration with Egyptian society and government that plays a part in many if not all of the stories. Taha, for example, finds himself unable to fulfill his dream of entering the Police Academy because of favoritism and corruption and soon joins a militant Islamic group. Busayna discovers that the only way she can support herself and her family is by allowing male employers to take sexual advantage of her. Zaki falls victim to his conniving sister who evicts him from his own apartment by getting the police on her side. Money, family, and connections are everything, and without them, there is little one can do to change one's fate. It helps very much not to be a woman as well.

I admired the range of stories (not that there are all that many main narrative threads, maybe a handful) and subject matter they explore, from political corruption to workplace exploitation, religious devotion, family dynamics, sexuality, con men, drug dealing, torture, and falling in love. It's a lot to cover in 250 pages, and Al Aswany does it admirably, giving us a feel for life in Cairo. I was grateful for the list of characters and their descriptions included right before the novel's opening because the frequent switching from story to story got distracting at times, and the guidance was helpful.

I was never fully immersed in the novel, another function, I'm sure, of the jumps from character to character. But there were rewards to compensate for this, especially the overview of Egyptian society the multiple stories offered and the economy with which Al Aswany captures a rich sense of his characters' lives. The narrator seems to withhold judgment, portraying the characters' virtues and failings with equanimity. He seems interested more in understanding why people are the way they are rather than in judging them for what they do. It's possible to find this narrative style flat and affectless, but I felt an undercurrent of compassion that at times is powerful.


Rohan Maitzen said...

I like your comment that "he seems more interested in understanding why people are the way they are rather than in judging them" -- that's something I felt too, that there's a kind of holding back. Maybe this is a problem, as Stefanie suggests, in that there's a kind of passivity in the characters too, but I can see how that is connected to their life under a regime that is so corrupt and oppressive.

Stefanie said...

I think he does a good job at showing how corruption in the way government and society runs affects people and changes them frequently for the worse. I think I might have liked the book better if the structure had been different, if it had been written as a series of interconnecting stories instead of a novel that jumps around because I didn't find the premise of the building to be enough to hold everything together as a novelistic narrative.

Rebecca H. said...

Rohan -- passive is a good word to describe much about the book. I suppose that "holding back" can get him in a bit of trouble, since it's unclear what his own stance is at points. The passivity in the characters makes sense -- when they AREN'T passive (such as Taha), their story ends badly.

Stefanie -- interesting point about a series of interconnecting stories. I wonder what that would have felt like. It would probably have allowed me to feel more immersed in the story and perhaps to be more emotionally involved.