You’ll never control your own life.
Or so it is in “The Automobile Club of Egypt,” best-selling Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany’s new novel, as translated by Russell Harris.
Some characters want to cede control to their government, conquerors, parents or lovers. Others complain but don’t rise up. The worst ones make a grab for the reins when their comrades are into it, then backpedal when the boss shows up angry.
The novel takes place in British-occupied 1940s Cairo. The nationalist Wafd Party is working to expel the British, and the king of Egypt and foreign management are mistreating the Egyptian laborers at the Automobile Club.
One of Wafd’s leaders expresses the root complaint: “The British occupation means to subdue Egypt, and the English want to break our will. The occupation is rape. Egypt is being raped on a daily basis.”
Unfortunately, the author asks so many questions and poses so many possible viewpoints about the myriad types of occupations and violations that it’s hard to know what to want for the characters. Sometimes they’re fighting the man, sometimes they’re rolling over.
The cast of characters is Tolstoyan, and their names are just about as tricky, too. We’re talking quite a few subplots.
Mahmud, for instance, is a young Egyptian who works for the Automobile Club. He enters into a paid sexual relationship with Rosa, an older British woman who’s a club member.
Mahmud thinks that she is “nothing more to him than a haggard old woman, pretending to be younger than her age.” He resents her, feels aversion toward her and their actions are against his religious beliefs, but, what the heck, the pay’s good.
“She gave him a life of ease: delicious food, fine wine and a soft bed. He felt some pride at bedding Rosa, for here he was, a dark-skinned Egyptian, expressing his manhood for the first time with an English lady who had become attached to him.”
Mahmud is as unclear about what he wants as the Egyptians and the Automobile Club members are about their treatment at the hands of their rulers.
Outrageously, the Automobile Club staff fights against corporal punishment but can’t function properly without it. Should we hope that the British stick around, too?
Most literarily disturbing is the preface wherein the “author” is visited by two of his characters who’ve come to life. Their message is that he has written the book ineptly, so they’ve rewritten it to include their first person perspectives in some chapters.
The preface must be an attempt at metafiction, saying to the reader: Look, my governance of the characters in this book is just as tyrannical as any rule-of-law-gone-wrong. However, it reads as a confusing flirtation with magical realism and sets a false expectation about the nature of the nearly 500 pages that follow.
The social commentary of “The Automobile Club” offers intermittent insights into human nature, some possibly amusing, but anything more engaging must have been lost in translation.
To reach Anne Kniggendorf, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Automobile Club of Egypt, by Alaa Al Aswany (Knopf; 496 pages; $27.95)