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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Respected Sir

Naguib Mahfouz

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

To purchase Respected Sir

Title: Respected Sir
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Genre: Novel
Written: 1975 (Eng. 1986)
Length: 163 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: in Respected Sir/Wedding Song/The Search - US
in Respected Sir/Wedding Song/The Search - UK
in Respected Sir/Wedding Song/The Search - Canada
Respected Sir - India
Son excellence - France
Ein ehrenwerter Herr - Deutschland
  • Arabic title: حضرة المحترم
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Rasheed El-Enany

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective tale of the dangers of a single-minded pursuit

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung . 11/1/1997 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Nagib Machfus zeigt mit Ironie und Ingrimm, wie hier einer sein Leben einem Ziele widmet, das ihn, je näher er ihm kommt, immer weiter von sich selber abbringt. (...) Was Machfus' Roman für europäische Leser so anregend macht, ist freilich nicht nur, daß unter exotischem Gewande und vor ägyptischer Kulisse ein Sozialcharakter auftritt, den es auch anderswo gibt und der, von fremdem Lichteausgeleuchtet, zugleich vertraut und erschreckend anmutet. Nein, der Reiz dieses Romans besteht für europäische Leser nicht so sehr darin, daß sie vieles wiedererkennen mögen, sondern daß sie manches staunend noch gar nicht kannten." - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

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:

       Respected Sir is the story of Othman Bayyumi. Born in modest circumstances, he was a very good student, drawing "ahead of his bare-footed playmates from the alley", but had to stop pursuing his studies when his mother died, the final family support (his father and siblings had died earlier). Left alone, "a branch cut off a tree", he enters the civil service, where his excellent grades immediately bring him to the notice of his superiors.
       Bayyumi begins as a low-level (eighth-grade) clerk in the Archives section, but from the first his ambition is to progress to the pinnacle and become Director-General:

This was the highest ideal available to the common people, beyond which they could not aspire.
       Rising in grade until he reached that pinnacle is not just Bayyumi's dream, but his one, overriding goal, and he works towards it without allowing anything to get in his way -- which delivers results but also proves to be his undoing.
       He attends night school to get a higher degree (again excelling), learns foreign languages, works hard and well, ingratiates himself with the right superiors -- but even so, advancement only comes relatively slowly, and he sees each advance less as a triumph than a reminder of how much further he has to go.
       The biggest sacrifice he makes is in not settling down and starting a family. He cannot bring himself to marry, losing his childhood sweetheart (and other romantic opportunities) in the process. His eyes always on the prize, women don't fit into the plan very well. Neither do friends, and soon he finds himself fairly successful but also that:
He was friendless. Relations between him and the companions of his boyhood had ceased altogether. At work he had colleagues who respected and envied him but he had no friends. The only man with whom he could sit and talk was a servant at al-Husayn Mosque, and the only touch of romance in his arid life was a bare room and a whore who was half negro. 'What's the meaning of this life ?'
       It's a question that tears at him constantly. Eventually he does marry -- not once, but twice. Typically, however, he hides his wives (and even the fact of his marriage) because their existence might interfere with his success.
       Bayyumi's single-minded obsession makes him the man he is -- a successful and respected civil servant -- but also limit him: that is also all he is. And though he believes so firmly in what he is doing, success turns out to be surprisingly hollow.
       He tells his wife:
     'A government position is a brick in the edifice of the State, and the State is an exhalation of the spirit of God, incarnate on earth.'
       Bayyumi never questions these underlying assumptions (which, not surprisingly, few others believe in with the same fervour), and though he takes occasional steps to become more well-rounded (acquiring a variety of knowledge -- which does prove useful -- and marrying) he is too obsessed with his single-minded notions to truly be a successful member of society beyond in his professional capacity. He's a pure bureaucrat, and essentially nothing else -- except that he does have feelings and desires, which he is completely incapable of addressing (other than by being even more driven to succeed, which certainly isn't the answer).
       Mahfouz's morality tale is fairly effective, the drama of Bayyumi's rise and concurrent failures making for a good story. Bayyumi's struggles, with his personal demons and with the bureaucratic structure in which he wants to succeed, make for good drama, and Mahfouz presents an interesting (if not very sympathetic) protagonist. The book moves quickly (and inexorably), and though stylistically occasionally slightly awkward (it does read like a translated, foreign work) is, overall, quite gripping.

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Respected Sir: 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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