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Murder in the Tower of Happiness


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Title: Murder in the Tower of Happiness
Author: M.M.Tawfik
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 340 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Murder in the Tower of Happiness - US
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Murder in the Tower of Happiness - India
  • Arabic title: طفل شقي اسمه عنتر
  • Translated by the author

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Our Assessment:

B : ambitious -- ultimately bewilderingly so

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The title Murder in the Tower of Happiness and even a summary of the novel may make it sound like this is a standard sort of mystery -- and there is indeed a murder at its heart -- but it is fairly far from most conventional crime fiction. (The publishers apparently also considered the title A Naughty Boy called Antar, which should give some idea of how differently the story could equally well have been presented.)
        The book is divided into sections that are called 'pages' ('The First Page', 'The Second Page', etc.), and these rotate through a number of characters. For most of them, the narrator speaks omnisciently; eventually the sections switch to first person accounts. After nine such 'pages' come: 'A Page Never Read', 'A Page No One Noticed', and finally a closing section that is 'A Page Composed by the Clock's Strikes', which itself counts down through twelve clock-strikes.
       Among the characters the narrative focusses on are a policeman, Sergeant Ashmouni, a journalist, Islah Mohandes, and Abd al-Malak, whose PhD in genetic engineering from MIT is a qualification that he can't put to much use in Egypt (or any of the Arab countries, though there's a job offer for him from Israel ...) and who is eventually reduced offering his services as a psychic. There are also the various tenants of the Tower of Happiness -- and then there's the young scamp Antar, who seems to get in the middle of everything.
       "There's something off about this tower", one character notes. So it would seem, right from the start -- which involves not the murder but a piano (among other things) flying off one of its balconies. And then there is the murder, the victim the actress Ahlam Shawarby, found strangled in the elevator.
       An eclectic group of largely very wealthy people live in the tower, beginning with a sheikh who inhabits the top four floors -- and whose family takes up the next three. Ashmouni, Islah, and Abd al-Malak each come across a number of the tenants in their investigations and searches, with Abd al-Malak even encountering an old flame who abandoned him when he left for America and who now lives in this building. Then there's also the fact that there are concerns about the tower being haunted -- hence the need for 'psychic' Abd al-Malak's services and, eventually, a proper séance.
       Near the end one character notes:

     I had imagined that with death, questions disappear and answers crystallize, but time has proved me wrong. Could questions, then, be the sole truth ? Might answers exist only in people's imaginations ?
       It certainly feels like that is the case throughout much of the novel. Ashmouni, Islah, and Abd al-Malak in particular often act as though they were sure of themselves, at least in front of others, but in fact they're constantly wracked by doubts. Each has family troubles and relationship issues, too, and the mystery around the murder adds to a very general sense of confusion.
       Aside from personal concerns, this is also a political novel, with considerable commentary and criticism of Egypt and current conditions. Among much else: the rich defend themselves as being the only possible check to the "cancerous growth of government bureaucracy", and widespread corruption that undermines all civil institutions, including education, is roundly criticised.
       Tawfik's roundabout and multi-layered approach can be wearying, even as his scenes are often very well-done. It's the larger picture that doesn't come very easily together, the disparate parts including everything from chapter-epigraphs that range from poems to newspaper-clippings ("Obscene Exercises for Fat Women" reads one in its entirety, coupled with a quote from Thomas Moore ...) to individual stories that don't overlap very neatly. Tawfik's style that also ranges from the straightforward to the elliptical-lyrical adds to the difficulties posed by the text.
       There is something to be said for the approach: the novel is not merely a work in translation, but has elements that are truly foreign, and much of it is a vivid depiction of slices of Egyptian life unlike that found elsewhere. As a whole, however, it is not entirely a success; questions may be the sole truth, but too many of them remain here.

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Murder in the Tower of Happiness: Reviews: Other books by M.M.Tawfik under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author M.M.Tawfik (محمد توفيق) was born in 1956.

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