The Seventh Heaven--Naguib Mahfouz


I finished this book several days ago and only now have gotten around to saying a few words about it. To start with it is useful to reiterate a statement I made when I quoted from this book a few days back. Naguib Mahfouz is a difficult writer--not so much in the complexity of his prose as in his regionalism. His concerns are, rightly, the concerns of his country in its time and sometimes it takes a pretty thoroughgoing knowledge of recent Egyptian history to make out where Mahfouz is going and what he is saying. There are parts of his work (I'm thinking here of a work like Karnak Cafe) where the particulars important for fully understanding the story are not particularly generalizable.

The Seventh Heaven, however, has something to say to anyone who has interest in matters beyond affairs of state and recent history. The subtitle is Supernatural Tales, although, this is not an entirely accurate description, perhaps something more like Tales of the Fantastic and Supernatural might be more appropriate and would better encompass a story like that of the hotel room in which a Grand Matron is holding court. As she converses more and more and more people join her until the room is packed so full and the people eating so much that one expects a climax rather like the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera. One does not get it, instead having a bizarre, macabre, and even inhuman twist.

In the title story, a murdered man is taken into the First Heaven and tried, only to be found wanting--not so wanting as to be condemned, but enough that he must serve as spirit guide for a person on Earth. This leads to disaster and the man is ultimately condemned to relive life. The story works itself out in a tale of revenge and renewal and it is a suitable start to an interesting collection.

The book includes stories in which Satan speaks to confess that there is a man in the land who utterly defeated him. A young boy who grows up fearing a nearby wood because of its supposed haunting by demons, turns into a teen who learns that there are no demons in the wood--but then are there?

I quoted the other day from what may well be my favorite story in the collection, "Beyond the Clouds," in which a young man enters the realm of the afterlife, undergoes purgation and is set at a task appropriate for the occupation of eternity, only to meet the person with whom he was deeply in love on Earth.

You don't need to know a lot about Egypt (although it is occasionally helpful) or its politics and history to enjoy the stories in this book. They may be slight, perhaps not a master's best work, I have not read extensively enough to be able to comment on this; however, they are a good entree if you're interesting in broadening your reading horizons and including one of the more recent Nobel Prize winning authors in your reading list. This may be a place to start rather than the more famous Miramar or the more political (but highly relevant) Karnak Cafe.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 15, 2009 7:28 AM.

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