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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Beginning and the End

Naguib Mahfouz

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To purchase The Beginning and the End

Title: The Beginning and the End
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Genre: Novel
Written: 1949 (Eng. 1985)
Length: 412 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Beginning and the End - US
The Beginning and the End - UK
The Beginning and the End - Canada
Vienne la nuit - France
Anfang und Ende - Deutschland
Principio y fin - España
  • Arabic title: بداية ونهاية
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Ramses Awad
  • Edited by Mason Rossiter Smith

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Our Assessment:

B+ : much of it simple, even melodramatic, yet very well told and compelling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 17/10/2000 Stefan Weidner
The LA Times . 12/11/1989 Muhammad Siddiq
Publishers Weekly . 1/9/1989 .
The Times . 31/3/1990 Nessim Dawood

  From the Reviews:
  • "Doch kurz bevor man das Buch kopfschüttelnd beiseite legen will, geht Machfus tiefer, lotet die einfach angelegten Figuren mit der ganzen ihnen möglichen Ambivalenz aus, macht aus den Typen Charaktere. (...) In welcher Grundhaltung zu den Umbrüchen der Moderne dieses Mehr wurzelt, erfährt man aber nur hier in diesem frühen Roman; und zwar, wie ja meist bei Machfus, auf durchaus kurzweilige Art." - Stefan Weidner, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Cast in the traditional mold of realistic fiction, the novel is almost a case study in social stratification. (...) As is typical in Mahfouz, innate disposition conspires with acquired habit to motivate the characters of this novel to transgress against a reified social system that lashes back at them with deadly vengeance. (...) Although the events of the plot unfold in a uni-linear sequence of cause and effect, the novel contains a considerable amount of suspense and many turns and twists that never cease to fascinate us in realistic fiction." - Muhammad Siddiq, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Readers may appreciate this novel's authenticity and rare terrain but will surely be irked by overt politicizing, highly melodramatic prose and a lackluster translation." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The Beginning and the End is a most powerful and compassionate Dickens-like tale (.....) Here we have Mafouz's realism at its best (.....) Yet there's candour and wit, irony and humour (...), and twists and turns galore which firmly grip the reader's attention. (...) It is a superbly competent and faultless translation." - Nessim Dawood, The Times

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 Beginning and the End begins with the death of Kamel Effendi Ali, a minor official at the Ministry of Education and the father of four. He leaves behind his wife, Samira, teenage sons Hassanein (17 at the time) and Hussein (19) who are still in school, older sister Nefidsa (23), and older brother Hassan (25). While not well-to-do, the family had lived in reasonable comfort on the father's income, but his pension is only a fraction of that, and they immediately face considerable hardship. They quickly sacrifice some of their furniture, and swap apartments to save on the rent -- even as Hassanein and Hussein, especially complain, the spoiled boys worried about their standing at school if they are reduced to relying on school lunches and no longer have pocket money for any sort of treats.
       The entire family seems convinced that working for a living -- especially when it doesn't involve a comfortable government sinecure -- is something shameful. Nefisa happily showed off her sewing talents, gladly doing the sewing for friends for free -- but now that she has to do it for money (as she becomes the family's sole provider, beyond the father's pension) she is overwhelmed by the shame of it:

The demarcation line between dignity and humiliation is easily crossed. She had been a respectable girl but now she had become a dressmaker.
       Unfortunate in her looks, too -- "She was far from handsome, indeed almost ugly. It was her misfortune to resemble her mother" -- her prospects of marriage are poor, at least until one or more of the boys can establish themselves. Meanwhile, eldest brother Hassan is the most hopeless of the bunch, a ne'er-do-well. He has a good side, and helps out on occasion, but:
He was constantly torn by a conflict between his personal needs and selfishness on one hand and love for his family on the other.
       Hassan makes money as a bouncer and singer, part of a seedy milieu soaked in violence, alcohol, and drugs. He also lives in sin, a kept man of sorts: all in all quite the black stain for the family that places such an emphasis on respectability -- but since they rarely see him that is, for the most part, kept at a distance.
       The two younger boys have it a bit easier, since they still have the excuse of school to keep from having to provide for their families. They do some tutoring -- but it's their pupil's sister, Bahia, they're more interested in, and Hassanein and she are soon informally engaged -- with Hassanein all eager lust and Bahia keeping him very much at a decorous distance.
       At least the two younger brothers do quite well at school, but when Hussein graduates he is pressured into taking a job, rather than furthering his education (and prospects). Hassanein -- a year behind him at school, and eager to have any burden shifted away from him for as long as possible (and wanting another income-earner in the family so that he won't have to follow this path and can study further) -- plays the guilt card well:
Besides, granting that to be employed on the baccalaureate is a sacrifice, you should be the one to make the sacrifice, not because I wish to deny you something which I want to get for myself, but because our family can make use of your sacrifice right now, while it has to wait another year to make use of mine.
       Even as Hussein laughs -- "I'm sure that you won't agree to make any sacrifices, neither this year nor the next", he says, knowing his brother well -- he knows he has littel choice, and he takes a post at a school -- in the provinces. He is able to send money home, but also struggles with his own, now much more limited aspirations.
       When Hussein heads off for his job he needs some start-up money, to keep him going until his first pay check comes, and he turns to wayward brother Hassan. A year later, new graduate Hassanein has his eyes set on a place in the expensive War College -- and again it is Hassan whose dirty money helps enable that.
       Respectability and appearances matter a great deal to the family (except for Hassam. who has obviously given up even just pretending) -- though their notions of it are somewhat limited and twisted. Hassanein constantly badgers Bahia for the slightest shows of affection (preferably of some physical sort), but she keeps her distance, knowing better
Don't you read what Al Sabah magazine publishes about girls who are deserted because of their recklessness ? Don't you listen to the wireless ?
       Meanwhile, Nefidsa's subsription to Al Sabah no doubt lapsed, but even so she knows very well what society and family expect -- but wallowing in self-pity at her unattractiveness, both physical and now due to her family's impoverished circumstances, she seeks solace wherever she can find it. The grocery-boy at least pays attention, and so even though he is beneath her she figures this is all she can aspire to and she pins her hopes on him. Unlike Bahia, she can't resist physical temptation, and soon finds herself a fallen woman with even less prospects. Unable to see a way out, she embraces the role (complete with self-loathing):
She found pleasure, if we might call it that, in looking upon herself as a martyr and a victim of despondency and poverty.
       Hassanein's success at the War College appear to be the long-awaited turning point, the family now finally able to get on its feet again, with Hussein likely soon to be posted to Cairo too. But Hassanein gets too big for his new britches, and too concerned about appearances -- which, suddenly, seem to be within his grasp. Typically:
A friend of his had once observed, "Army officers are pompous and highly paid, their work, like play, is good for nothing." This description had turned Hassanein's head and intensified his dream of becoming such an officer.
       He's suited for the role, of course -- but suddenly his longtime fiancée isn't good enough for him, and neither is their old neighborhood. What he has less control over are the black sheep of the family: the Hassan-problem is one they're aware of but think they can keep at a distance (they can't quite), but there's also the surprise of what Nefidsa has been up to.
       "We devour one another", Hussein thinks to himself at one point, and it's true -- and leads also to the catastrophic, (melo)dramatic end. Each sibling is willing to make sacrifices, and yet in the end it's too late to salvage very much.
       Mahfouz's novel is fast-paced and often fairly simple, but his storytelling talents shine through: what seems so basic -- often little more than soap-opera-like melodrama -- adds up to more. He doesn't go for simple excesses -- like true melodrama would have, at several turns -- but rather allows the family to struggle and also succeed, on their various levels, realistically. Yet it all also builds to a devastating end, a remarkable if terrible sequence.
       In the opening scene of the novel, when Hassanein and his brother get called out of their classes to be told of their father's death, Hassanein's initial thought is that they might be in trouble because of some demonstrations he had taken part in -- though: "He had thought he had escaped the bullets, the canes, and school punishments altogether." It's a rare intrusion of the politics of the day into a novel that barely acknowledges the larger political situation and instead is turned almost entirely inwards. Mahfouz acknowledges this -- in also noting just how self-centered the family is:
Engrossed in the troubles of their private lives, the two brothers were almost oblivious to the drastic changes their country was undergoing at this time.
       In making The Beginning and the End so domestic, it also has a more timeless feel -- aside from some of the money-specifics and the mention of automobiles, this is a novel that basically could be set across a range of time anywhere from the nineteenth century to the near-present-day. Yet even as the novel is so tightly focused on the family and avoids almost any mention of political or historical specifics it feels much larger than just a family-portrait; their interactions with outside representatives -- such as Ahmad Bey Yousri, whose influence repeatedly proves helpful, but also other individuals and families -- make for a surprisingly rich portrait of the country and society of those times.
       As simple as The Beginning and the End seems, it is a denser, richer novel than it first appears to be. Mahfouz once again proves to be a wonderful writer, and his novel is a very entertaining and rewarding read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 January 2016

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The Beginning and the End: 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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