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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Coffeehouse

by
Naguib Mahfouz


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Coffeehouse



Title: The Coffeehouse
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Genre: Novel
Written: 1988 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 143 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Coffeehouse - US
The Coffeehouse - UK
The Coffeehouse - Canada
The Coffeehouse - India
  • Arabic title: قشتمر
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Raymond Stock

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Our Assessment:

B : fine short novel of friendship and looking back on life in Egypt through the twentieth century

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       The Coffeehouse is Naguib Mahfouz's last novel (though not his last work), and was being serialized in Al-Ahram in 1988 when it was announced Mahfouz had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. As translator Raymond Stock notes in his Afterword, it is: "Fittingly final, as it is really a work of literary nostalgia".
       The Cairene coffeehouse of the title (and the actual title of the Arabic original) is Qushtumur, a place where five life-long friends regularly met, from the time of their teens through old age, spanning most of the twentieth century. The anonymous narrator is the least visible of the group, at best included in the 'we' that describes what they're up to, but never saying anything about the course of his own life apart from the others. The other four are true characters, with names, different talents, and varying life-paths. One, Sadiq, is a born businessman and opens up a shop as soon as he can (and is very successful); another, Tahir, disappoints his father by not following in his footsteps as a doctor but manages to rise to "literary stardom".
       While the coffeeshop is a meeting place that brings them together, their ties go beyond that. The narrator notes that they befriended one another at age five on the first schoolyard, in 1915, when they all entered the same primary school, and for years the group was a much larger one; in their early teens they finally discovered Qushtumur -- where, eventually, their ranks were reduced to this core five. And:

     Qushtumur the coffeehouse saw us take leave of our youth and our first steps into manhood. We spent our lives between work, culture, and evening conversation.
       And so it continued, too, with their neighborhood, Abbasiya, transformed along with the rest of Egypt over the years and decades, but Qushtumur remaining reliably the same. (When they were young, east and west Abbasiya were like different sides of the tracks, but it eventually became a more unified (and much more bustling) whole.) Together they also face the many upheavals, from the bombardments of the Second World War to 23 July 1952 -- the coup d'état that "appeared to us like a brilliant dawn" -- to the "era of the second leader" (Anwar Sadat), which was: "the epoch of pulpits, victory, peace, and al-Infitah, as well as the greatest degree of corruption ever recorded".
       But politics and history are largely backdrop, and only occasionally intrude into the personal lives of the group. And it is the personal lives -- the loves and marriages and children, as well as the careers -- of the four friends that dominate (about the fifth, the narrator, practically nothing is revealed). These ups and downs, across decades, give a sense of the flow of lives and time; with so many characters and over so little space, Mahfouz can not go into much depth, but it still makes for a nice group portrait.
       The individuals each follow relatively clear paths -- with the exception of ever-vacillating Hamada who, for example, adds "the Allies and the Axis to his vacillation between schools of thought" during the war, undecided which side is worth supporting, and who, having "tried every opinion and conviction" had in turn also adopted "Islam, then Christianity, and then the Jewish faith". Some are luckier in love than others, some have happier and clearer career paths, but they all do have each other and their mutual friendship -- and they have the coffeehouse Qushtumur to retreat to and to regroup in, even as the world spins wildly outside its doors.
       The Coffeehouse is a 'small' novel: not an ambitious, century-spanning tome, but a sketch of friendship and Egyptian life in the twentieth century. It's hardly an exceptional work, but an agreeable little one, a fitting coda to Mahfouz's straightforward narrative work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 June 2011

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Links:

The Coffeehouse: Reviews: Naguib Mahfouz: Other books by Naguib Mahfouz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz (نجيب محفوظ, Nagib Machfus) was born in 1911 and died in 2006 He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988.

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© 2011 the complete review

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