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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Time-Travels of
the Man Who Sold
Pickles and Sweets

Khairy Shalaby

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To purchase The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets

Title: The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets
Author: Khairy Shalaby
Genre: Novel
Written: 1991 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 254 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets - US
The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets - UK
The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets - Canada
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Michael Cooperson
  • Includes a Glossary

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyable episodes, but doesn't do as much with its premise as it could

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Al-Ahram Weekly . 29/9/2010 Gamal Nkrumah

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets was Egypt personified. He pays homage to his foreign masters and ingeniously mixes pragmatism with stupidity, happily playing the fool. (...) The beauty of this novel is that it demonstrates how medieval, and modern, invaders employed their prowess in battlefield as the surest indication of their superior culture of leisure leaving the indigenous Egyptians like our hero the seller of pickles and sweets to suffer in silence." - Gamal Nkrumah, Al-Ahram Weekly

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:

       The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets is narrated by Ibn Shalaby, who doesn't go around selling many pickles or sweets but does find himself a "vagabond wandering through time" in his native Egypt (and, specifically, Cairo, from its first days). He claims to "come and go as I please", but in fact he seems to have little control; many fictional time-travelers have a bit of trouble getting this right, but he has little say where he's off to next (and when he will find himself transported to yet another time) and tends to drift along from ... time to time.
       As he notes at one point:

Unfortunately, the prison of time turned out to be harder to break out of than prisons in space. When I thought about the future, I could make the different periods of history shimmer before my eyes. But every time I saw ahead clearly enough to jump beyond the time where I was imprisoned, I trembled at the thought that I might be sinning against God. Though I could see the future with my own eyes, I surprised myself by recoiling from it
       His watch does tell him where he is at any given time, and for much of this novel he does progress relatively chronologically, but there are some more abrupt jumps too. Nevertheless, rather than just hopscotching around, he does spend a great deal of his time in the 12th century, as the Fatimid dynasty falls, and then in the 14th century, among the Mamluks.
       Shalaby does not bother much with any explanation of how or why his protagonist finds himself to be a time-traveler, offering it simply as a given as the character has already clearly been at this quite a while when the book opens. There's little focus on time travel itself, or the disconnect the person must feel finding himself in different times in an instant; instead, Ibn Shalaby easily goes with the (time-)flow. There's some fun with anachronisms -- a Walkman (portable cassette recorder) is a piece of technology that doesn't stand the test of time well, for example -- but for the most part there's fairly little of this as well. Instead, time travel -- and the character's sudden presence in a new time -- are almost taken for granted and hardly raise any eyebrows; indeed, he isn't the only time traveler, his path occasionally crossing that of others.
       Ibn Shalaby gets mixed up in a variety of historical events, but here too there's limited drama, the narrative offering quick glimpses of the broader panoramas of the times, but more often simply focused on (admittedly often turbulent) court life, as Ibn Shalaby often finds himself in the thick of those things. Confidently casual -- "Tell Sal I'm on my way", he tells a deputy, keeping Saladin waiting -- Ibn Shalaby is rarely invested enough (or has to worry about his own hide too much) to make much of a difference in the course of history. Yet he's also not much of a pure observer: there are some clever takes on the Egyptian condition, and especially the relationship between ruling and ruled classes, but Ibn Shalaby skims across this too, just as he skims through time.
       Ibn Shalaby is an amusing figure (his riff on why he is thinking of "opening a broad-based literary agency" typical of Shalaby's wide-ranging satire -- and also typical of it ranging just a bit too wide), and there are a fair number of interesting historical episodes as well, but there's a simple adventurousness missing to The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets. With a protagonist who neither feels simply buffeted about by fate, nor fully embraces the possibilities of what can be learnt and done in such time-travels, Shalaby's story putters around too lackadaisically, and feels like it doesn't nearly take advantage of all the possibilities of its premise.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 November 2010

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The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets: Reviews: Khairy Shalaby: Other books by Khairy Shalaby under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Khairy Shalaby (خيري شلبي) was born in 1938.

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© 2010 the complete review

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