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the Complete Review
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Alaa Al Aswany

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To purchase Chicago

Title: Chicago
Author: Alaa Al Aswany
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 342 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Chicago - US
Chicago - UK
Chicago - Canada
Chicago - France
Chicago - Deutschland
  • Arabic title: شيكاغو
  • Translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting Egyptian perspectives, but Chicago is poorly utilized and the writing pretty roughshod

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 16/2/2008 John R. Bradley
FAZ . 28/4/2008 Sabine Berking
The Guardian . 4/10/2008 Jay Parini
The Independent . 3/10/2008 Boyd Tonkin
NZZ . 12/3/2008 Angela Schader
New Statesman . 30/10/2008 Rachel Aspden
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/1/2009 Ligaya Mishan
The Observer . 28/9/2008 William Skidelsky
The Spectator . 17/9/2008 Francis King
Sunday Times . 21/9/2008 Adam Lively
The Telegraph . 7/9/2008 Sukhdev Sandhu
The Telegraph . 7/9/2008 Ed King
TLS . 12/9/2008 Sameer Rahim
Die Zeit . 13/3/2008 Stefan Weidner

  Review Consensus:

  It's no The Yacoubian Building, but the same formula works almost as well here

  From the Reviews:
  • "Chicago was first published in weekly instalments in the opposition newspaper Al-Dustour, so the chapters often end with rather contrived cliff-hangers. New characters, especially in the first half of the novel, are introduced at almost too-rapid intervals, and too many of them are not fully brought to life. Instead, they are merely used to represent an idea or dilemma, which can then be clashed with another. The sex scenes, viewed as faintly scandalous back in Egypt, will also strike western readers as timid to the point of being faintly embarrassing. Nevertheless, Chicago is worth reading as a rare opportunity to consider the contemporary Egyptian condition." - John R. Bradley, Financial Times

  • "Irgendwie zerfleddert der Roman zu einem szenischen Archipelago, geraten allzu viele der Charaktere zu holzschnittartigen Karikaturen, was der doppelten ideologischen Speerspitze des Buches geschuldet sein mag. Der beißenden Kritik am korrupten Regime Mubaraks und an der bigotten Moral frömmelnder Muslime, die zum Verblüffen des Westens die ägyptische Zensur passieren konnte, stellt der Autor eine naive ideologische Kritik Amerikas aus der Klassenkampf-Retorte gegenüber, die an Glaubwürdigkeit wenig Interesse hat." - Sabine Berking, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The cast of characters is a large one, and Chicago weaves together their various stories -- too many of them, perhaps. (...) This is a shrewdly conceived novel: by isolating his Egyptians in an alien culture, Al Aswany finds the pressure points in their personalities, as each undergoes cultural traumas of one kind or another. There are profound, often chilling, moments of self-realisation along the way" - Jay Parini, The Guardian

  • "The book's rattling readability is a tribute to Al Aswany's narrative gifts, as this translation has too many flat or clunky passages. His captivating voice can sound muffled. Still, this gossipy banquet of human folly and nobility never lacks relish." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Allerdings sind al-Aswanis Romane wohl nicht in erster Linie nach unseren Massstäben zu beurteilen, sondern im Blick auf ein weniger lesegewohntes arabisches Publikum, das hier zur kritischen Auseinandersetzung mit der eigenen Lebensrealität verlockt werden soll. Diese Feuerprobe hat der Roman bestanden -- und schon das macht ihn auch für hiesige Leser interessant." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Chicago, like The Yacoubian Building, is an enormously good-hearted book. Al-Aswany has an instinctive sympathy for underdogs of any description (.....) Chicago takes a level-headed view of even his own politics. "Those who demonstrate are members of the elite," Doss challenges the novel's alter-Aswany, the leftist poet-scientist Nagi Abd al-Samad. On American ground, Chicago is not as sure-footed. Farouk Abdel Wahab's translation is less flowing and idiomatic than Humphrey Davies's lively English version of The Yacoubian Building. The awkward prose is sometimes fitting" - Rachel Aspden, New Statesman

  • "Al Aswany writes about his Egyptian characters with charm, gentle humor and genuine conviction. It’s his depiction of Americans in their natural habitat that baffles. (...) Ultimately, Al Aswany is interested less in verisimilitude than in exploring big themes: social injustice, racial oppression, government corruption. (...) (T)here is none of Egypt’s noise, color and seethe of life in close quarters to be found here. It’s Al Aswany’s loss -- and, perhaps, ours." - Ligaya Mishan, The New York Times Book Review

  • "America, a nation of immigrants, is founded on the belief that old attachments can be transcended, whereas Islamic cultures tend to demand a strict obedience of their subjects that persists even when they move overseas. In presenting us with the collision of these two standpoints, al Aswany has written a novel that, if nothing else, feels extremely timely. (...) Chicago's frequently light tone disguises the overall pessimism of its vision. The book suggests there is no real possibility of successfully transcending the cultural divide; national identities are fixed and impermeable. Any Egyptian who attempts to 'become' American will be condemned to an unhappy life. (...) If you are going to take on the 'clash of civilisations', then it seems important to give both sides of the clash a fair hearing. By depicting America in such a caricatured way, al Aswany makes the gulf between Islam and the West seem even wider than it is." - William Skidelsky, The Observer

  • "The author’s view of his characters tends to be either disdainful or hostile. Dentist that he still is, he sets to work with the high-powered drill of an exceptional talent to reveal the abscess at the root of Egyptian society. (...) At his best al-Aswani resembles Somerset Maugham in being both a wonderful storyteller and a cynically astute observer of human folly and frailty. Unfortunately, like Maugham, he is also a writer with a truffle-hound’s nose for a cliché. His undistinguished style receives little burnish from his translator Farouk Abdel Wahab" - Francis King, The Spectator

  • "The specifically American strands (especially the story of an ageing 1960s radical and his younger black girlfriend) are its weakest links. Chicago is above all a book about Egypt. As such it is quite brilliant, and should be required reading for the hundreds of thousands of British tourists who step off the plane to soak up sun and ancient history without knowing what goes on under the surface of that deeply troubled and unhappy country." - Adam Lively, Sunday Times

  • "Alaa Al Aswany is definitely, defiantly, a storyteller. Lexical obscurities, ambiguities of characterisation, tricksy narrative devices: all are anathema to this best-selling Egyptian author. (...) This isn't a novel designed for postcolonial theorists; it's a rickety but surprisingly forceful engine for social change." - Sukhdev Sandhu, The Telegraph

  • "Chicago has the same operatic structure and broad canvas as The Yacoubian Building. The political plots are interspersed with tender tales of unexpected love and emotional liberation while chapters never fail to end with an intriguing cliff-hanger. Despite this, Chicago is a much less comfortable read. (...) His masterstroke in Chicago is to extract his characters from the comfort of their own cultures. In exile their personalities are stripped of all the legitimising props; their self-deceiving fantasies, prejudices and limitations are laid bare. (...) Beneath the strident political message, Chicago is, above all, a beautifully observed collection of character studies." - Ed King, The Telegraph

  • "The main strength of The Yacoubian Building was its political edge. Al Aswany is more daring here: in the last third of the novel, a visit by President Mubarak to the students in Chicago is effectively satirized. (...) Farouk Abdel Wahab's English translation is often awkward. Most of all, the sexual element is so persistent as to seem pathological." - Sameer Rahim, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Doch die schonungslose Abrechnung mit dem Islam, den Arabern und Ägypten scheint selbst einem Alaa al-Aswani nur möglich um den Preis, auch die westlichen Schwächen bloßzulegen. Dagegen wäre nicht viel zu sagen, wenn es sich der Autor nicht zu einfach machen würde. Die rein amerikanischen Erzählstränge sind nicht Gesellschaftskritik, sondern bedienen Klischees." - Stefan Weidner, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Chicago Alaa Al Aswany presents the criss-crossing stories of a number of Egyptians abroad, clustered around the Department of Histology at the the University of Illinois Medical School. Such a concentration of Egyptian histologists, both as faculty and students, is hard to believe, but then so are many of Aswany's American details -- but then Chicago isn't meant to shine a light on America, and turns out to be as much an Egyptian novel as The Yacoubian Building was. Indeed, in taking his characters out of their native environment he is able to focus on Egyptian issues and ways particularly well.
       As in The Yacoubian Building Aswany juggles a number of fates, presenting their ups and downs in short chapters which tend to leave the reader dangling until he returns to them a few chapters later. It's an effective story-telling technique, and along with the storylines he develops helps get over the relatively crude writing.
       The issues covered in the personal problems of the character include everything from the treatment of the Coptic minority in Egypt (which forced one character to abandon the career he originally had hoped to pursue) and the expectations of female virtue outside of marriage to the long reach of the Egyptian secret police. Particularly appealing about the novel is the forthrightness with which Aswany addresses the issue of Egypt's contemporary political corruption and decay; the name of the leader that's at the rotting head of this administration, Hosni Mubarak, is never mentioned, but he is often (and unmistakably) referred to, and one of the central occurrences in the book is a state visit that takes him to Chicago.
       Political allegiance and connexions still overwhelm merit, though Chicago does offer enough distance to allow some of the characters more leeway. Particularly interesting are the older characters, in some cases completely Americanized -- and yet still not free of their Egyptian roots.
       The soap-opera plot includes one doctor losing his daughter to drug addiction, but everywhere sex is one of the big problems (including in that case, where, of course, it was the bohemian artist-boyfriend that introduced the lass to hard drugs). Aswany does not shy away from sex. Often it's of the rather desperate sort -- especially when that female virtue is meant to stay untouched --, though at least one character does find a good measure of release and happiness when she shells out for a vibrator. There are also several break-ups here, and sex -- often of the forced, or at least coerced variety -- plays a role in some of them as well. Unfortunately, too, the sex descriptions are generally of the very cringe-inducing sort: "He pressed the breasts out of the bra as if they were two ripe fruit hanging on a branch", etc.
       Political activism also crops up repeatedly, from the cruelly powerful representatives of the government who try to pressure all into quiet obeisance to those who look for opportunities to oppose the Egyptian powers that be. One doctor still regrets having failed even to take futile steps decades earlier, while one student now takes some risks in trying to at least send a message to the present-day regime. Still, despite there being considerable complaints about the current situation in Egypt, the political activism is rather limited and quaint -- a signed protest they want to deliver to the president is about as challenging as it gets.
       In fact, it is the government toady and informant, Ahmad Danana, the head of the Egyptian Student Union in America, who is by far the most interesting character -- in no small part because he is mainly occupied with various machinations, instead of his studies, and Aswany isn't particularly good on academic life (but has fun ideas as far machinations go).
       There are some nice zingers against current Egyptian conditions, including:

     "Did I call you at a convenient time ? I don't want to take you from work."
     "I work for the Egyptian government, Salah. Working here just means showing up. We always have extra time."
       And there's even the occasional (if unoriginal) observation about the US that seems appropriate:
     "Here they use genetic engineering to make the fruit much larger and yet it doesn't taste so good. Life inAmerica, Nagi, is like American fruit: shiny and appetizing on the outside, but tasteless."
       What hurts the book, and makes it hard going in part, is how off Aswany is about America in general. In fact, so much of the American detail he offers, from his cartoon Chicago to faculty meetings to decide whether a student should be admitted or not ("Anyone who fulfills the requirements of the department is entitled to enroll" is definitely not the rule of thumb for the limited spots in American graduate school science departments), is so wrong -- and exactly wrong in the way one might expect an author who had read about a foreign country but never visited it to get it -- that one has to suspect that Aswany (who has studied in America) is actually writing down to his Egyptian audience, meeting their expectations of America -- this is how they imagine it -- rather than trying to present an accurate picture of it. Regardless of the reasons behind it, it makes for rough going for American readers, a too-naïve picture that undermines the rest of the book as well.
       Aswany spins a decent story, most of the way, and he spins and juggles quite a few here. Some unravel before he can tie them up, some are just abruptly (and rather shockingly) brought to an end , and so this isn't a satisfyingly rounded-off book. Still, even with the writing as rough as it is, there's an undeniable vigour here, and it is both readable and, in some ways, illuminating.
       Chicago isn't a very good book, but there's enough to it -- and too few others like it from that region -- to make it worthwhile.

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Chicago: Reviews: Other books by Alaa Al Aswany under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany (علاء الأسوانى) was born in 1957. He is also a dentist.

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© 2008-2009 the complete review

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