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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Using Life

Ahmed Naji

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To purchase Using Life

Title: Using Life
Author: Ahmed Naji
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 201 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Using Life - US
Using Life - UK
Using Life - Canada
Using Life - India
Vita: istruzioni per l'uso - Italia
  • Arabic title: استخدام الحياة
  • With illustrations by Ayman Al Zorkany
  • Translated by Benjamin Koerber

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Our Assessment:

B- : free-wheeling, but ultimately too unmoored

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 12/1/2018 Amir-Hussein Radjy

  From the Reviews:
  • "A profound pessimism courses through the profanities of Using Life (.....) Underlying Naji’s genre-defying fantasy is a jeu d’esprit about life in modern Cairo." - Amir-Hussein Radjy, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Using Life is a novel of Cairo, and of a younger generation of Egyptians struggling in a culture and society that is both extremely deeply-rooted (in history, tradition, etc.) and unmoored. The first chapter is nothing short of apocalyptic in its vision, first burying Cairo under a mountain of sand, then destroying half the city in an earthquake -- in which the Great Pyramid itself: "was reduced o a pile of rubble", and:

All that was left of our great heritage -- our civilization, our architecture, our poetry and prose -- would soon meet a fate even worse than that of the pyramids. Everything collapsed into the earth or was buried under oceans of sand.
       The novel proper then is a look back to before the collapse, beginning with more or less present-day Cairo -- the city and society already breaking down, yet still stumbling on, for now, in its familiar raucous, chaotic state. The narrator, Bassam Bahgat, describes his roaring twenties, when, after a stint working for a human rights organization, he got a job as a documentary filmmaker. Eventually he's hired to make a series of films, basically on Cairo. He becomes involved with a 'Society of Urbanists', dedicated to a sort of very ambitious urban renewal, with a focus on architecture and city planning; eventually the Society reinvents itself as a global alliance of corporations -- dozens, eventually -- controlling sixty per cent of the world's agriculture and a major player in all sorts of industries.
       There's a look at the development of the old city -- planned, but escaping those plans:
     No city was meant to be like this. Cairo was supposed to be more intelligently designed, more precise, more efficient. [...] What we need is a revolution.
       The city dominates the book, defining for the characters -- both as they are simply trying to get by, as well as working to upset various aspects of the contemporary order:
There's nothing more difficult than making decisions in Cairo, since it's Cairo that usually makes decisions for you.
       Bassam crisscrosses both the familiar Cairo and a more fantastical, imagined one; whether led down its familiar streets or given a glimpse of more sensational recesses the city, and its experience, remain fundamental:
     Cairo. The heat. The scowls, the sliminess, the sweat. The pain. The scream muffled inside. The streets that don't let you laugh or smile, or even cry or shout out in pain.
       Bassam -- a young man: "worried about turning twenty-five without having a good story to tell" -- describes his casual relationships and the lives and ambitions of those he interacts with, from the small-scale to the globally ambitious. Women figure in prominent and often powerful roles, in a novel that plays in many ways at subversiveness.
       Subversiveness extends to form as well, as the narrative is not limited to writing, either: a few sections are presented in cartoon-panel form, while a section on 'The Animal of Cairo' pairs illustration with brief description. (The artwork is by Ayman Al Zorkany.)
       Using Life crams many stories into the larger and dominant Society of Urbanists-conspiracy-tale, but it's a jittery narrative, hopping all around like its protagonist who often feels he is without control. There are raw scenes here, too -- including quite a bit of casual and incidental sex -- presenting a welcome broader picture of Egyptian life and society, and the struggles of a younger generation in the contemporary world -- convincingly twisted by Naji into his panoramic tale, but more impressive piece by separate piece than in the stuttering whole.
       A translation that feels somewhat stilted amplifies what surely is already in the original an aggressive prose challenging traditional narrative norms (especially of what (especially 'Western') readers seem to expect from Arabic fiction); Using Life is obviously not meant to be a smooth read -- but winds up being a somewhat frustrating one in English.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 January 2018

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Using Life: Reviews: Ahmed Naji: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Ahmed Naji (أحمد ناجي) was born in 1985.

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© 2018 the complete review

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