It would be easy to dismiss Mekkawi Said’s Cairo Swan Song by stating that the novel needed an editor, but such a remark would be unfair. The story sprawls all over the place, there are numerous subplots that are not carefully connected to the main one, but—that said—there is still much more to admire here than disparage. Particularly in the last third of the novel, incidents described become haunting, visceral, and so compelling that the weaknesses of several of the earlier sections all but evaporate. When the book was originally published in Arabic, the critics touted Said’s talent. The novel was short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
The narrator, Mustafa, is or has been a student radical, a womanizer (sometimes with more than one woman at the same time), a journalist, a poet, a scriptwriter, a con man, a schizophrenic (or maybe not), a teacher and, above all, an opportunist. Early in the novel he states this about himself: “I’ve never done the right thing in my entire life, wasting every chance I’ve had to change my fate. I always cling, stubbornly and idiotically, to schemes that are guaranteed failures and wastes of time, and frivolous, and thoughtless, and crazy. I ignore disappointing beginnings and watch apathetically as the sails of fiasco draw nearer. I’ve always been determined to plunge into the bog of shit up to my head. I probably need a battalion of psychiatrists, or to be locked up in a ward of the wildest insane asylum; restraints, too. Some place where I’ll be unconnected, out of touch.”
That remark becomes quite prophetic in regards to most of Mustafa’s story. He spends time in a hospital but also in a prison. Many of his friends are street people, prostitutes, drug dealers in Cairo—addicted to hashish and sniffing glue. His first girlfriend, the love of his life, dies in a freak explosion, from which Mustafa never recovers. A later girlfriend is an American named Marcia, a filmmaker, who has come to Cairo to make a documentary about the city’s street kids. That all changes when Marcia discovers that there are frequent anti-government protests on the streets, and that if she can film these, surreptitiously, she will have a much more commercial documentary than one about the city’s poor.
After his university days, Mustafa briefly led a rather conventional life. With Essam, an artist friend, he had lived and worked in the Middle East. He even spent a brief time in the United States, but after the two of them returned to Egypt, Mustafa’s life began to go astray. At the same time, Essam became an internationally recognized artist. The two of them kept in touch. Then Essam’s life also went astray because the woman he loved, Samantha, died suddenly of brain cancer after fleeing to Singapore. Because Samantha hadn’t wanted Essam to observe her rapid deterioration, she cut him off abruptly, though they were both in love with one another.
The deaths of the women destroy the lives of the two men in totally different ways. In the most moving scene in the novel, Essam in his madness (his shock and inability to recover from Samantha’s death), locks himself in his spacious apartment and literally covers the walls with images of Samantha: “She was everywhere, beside you, above you, getting dressed to go out, or getting ready to go to bed. In winter clothes and summer clothes. Sweeping the floor. Watching the washing machine. Eating. Making food. Sitting in front of a huge TV. Sitting at her desk working on the computer. Playing with dolls. In the small room Essam had planned to use as a nursery, Samantha was a child, younger than ten, playing with Asian toys. Studying as a teenager. Going out with her friends as a twenty-year-old. Marrying Essam in her late thirties.”
After observing all these murals of Samantha, Mustafa observes, “Essam was reliving his life with Samantha moment by moment. The place would astound anyone seeing it for the first time, but you could never go back there, not after you’d been filled with all that tragic energy.” Mustafa’s insight jump-starts his own dead-ended life, becoming the major turning point in the narrative.
For all of Mekkawi Said’s characters’ bad decisions, false starts, and negative pursuits, it is their humanity that ultimately crystallizes and redeems them as characters, fascinating characters. The translation by Adam Talib is vibrant and totally engaging, but by the last page of the novel, it is Said who has pulled this gigantic mishmash of material together and left us with another indelible picture of Cairo.
Cairo Swan Song
By Mekkawi Said
Trans. by Adam Talib
American University Press in Cairo, 283 pp., $22.95
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.