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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Smiles of the Saints

Ibrahim Farghali

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To purchase The Smiles of the Saints

Title: The Smiles of the Saints
Author: Ibrahim Farghali
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 136 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Smiles of the Saints - US
The Smiles of the Saints - UK
The Smiles of the Saints - Canada
  • Arabic title: ابتسامات القديسين
  • Translated by Andy Smart and Nadia Fouda-Smart

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing writing and approach

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Smiles of the Saints unfolds in a fairly roundabout manner, the five parts with a variety of narrators and perspectives. It begins with the return of Hameen to Egypt. She is twenty now, but has grown up abroad. She is staying with her aunt, the twin sister of her father, Rami, who gives her an envelope with papers to read -- a sort of incomplete memoir, in which Rami recounts his life.
       This account gives Hameen some insight into her parents and what they went through, as well as some of the mysteries surrounding her own circumstances. The young Rami had been politically active, a part of the Gama'a groups -- organised and militant Islamic groups -- of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he had always felt too much of an individual to really fully be part of the programme. After the assassination of Sadat he withdrew and distanced himself from them, going his own way -- and, among other things, turning to literature (which he had never entirely been able to leave behind).
       The death of a close childhood friend, Emad, weighed heavily on Rami, and turning to Islam was one way for him to try and deal with it. The girl he loved, Christine, was similarly overwhelmed and, as a Christian, went to the extremes at her disposal, becoming a nun. Neither, however, could find true escape in the purely religious (coupled, in the case of Rami, with the militant-ideological): just as Rami abandoned the Muslim Brotherhood Christine broke her vows and returned to civilian life.
       Christine is Hameen's mother, but much of Rami's account deals with another woman whom he had a relationship with -- only to discover that he couldn't get Christine out of his mind. Eventually the two were reunited, Christine became pregnant with Hameen, and, despite the difficulties given their different religious backgrounds, they formed a family. There was, however, no happy ever after, as Christine once again disappeared from Rami's life -- leaving Hameen to be shipped off to Europe as a young child, and to be raised in boarding schools there.
       The narrative is full of the echoes and shades of others, Rami (and his sister, who is also the voice in some of the chapters) slowly filling in the pieces of the past. A significant presence is also dead Emad, whose spirit pervades much of the novel (literally, too, in several of the sections). Meanwhile the now-adult Hameen struggles with her own relationship-issues just as she is confronted with more family history than she has ever dealt with.
       Farghali's oblique approach works fairly well, layers of history uncovered one by one, the larger picture shifting shape and slowly becoming clearer. The different perspectives (and voices) are also effectively used -- with much of the appeal of the smoothly written book found in the almost incidental descriptions. Occasionally there's too much of an effort at forced mystery, at raising what are meant to be tantalizing questions -- who is that ? what exactly happened here ? -- but the book is short and quick enough that even those parts that leave one impatient are soon resolved.
       The Smiles of the Saints also offers an appealing mix of the modern and traditional -- helped also by the spirit-presence, which nicely contrasts to the realistic descriptions. From the background music -- Paul Anka, Frank Sinatra -- to the literary references and quotes -- which include passages from Octavio Paz as well as Saadi Yousef and Amal Donqol -- and, of course, the religious references and touchstones, it makes for an interesting multicultural mix (with a very Egyptian slant to it).
       The story isn't particularly complicated, but it's hard not to describe it in a convoluted way. Where Farghali shows his talents is in pulling off that presentation, in making a coherent and cohesive -- and fairly powerful -- whole out of it. Occasionally, the effort at mystery (to the very end) is too forced, and there are parts which are too quickly dealt with -- Christine, in particular, has difficulty in coming into her own as a character -- but on the whole the book is a success. The religious issues are, unavoidably, particularly prominent, but for the most part -- even despite sending Christine off to a nunnery for a year ! -- Farghali manages to keep religion well in check: this doesn't come across too overtly as a 'religion-problem' novel.
       A talented author, an interesting effort. Worthwhile.

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The Smiles of the Saints: Ibrahim Farghali: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ibrahim Farghali (إبراهيم فرغلي) was born in Egypt in 1967. He has written several novels, and works as a journalist in Kuwait.

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© 2007-2010 the complete review

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