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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical

Echoes of an Autobiography

Naguib Mahfouz

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To purchase Echoes of an Autobiography

Title: Echoes of an Autobiography
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Genre: Autobiographical
Written: 1994 (Eng. 1997)
Length: 129 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Echoes of an Autobiography - US
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Echo meines Lebens - Deutschland
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  • Arabic title: Asda' al-sirah al-dhatiyah
  • First published in Al-Ahram in 1994
  • Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
  • With a Foreword by Nadine Gordimer

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Our Assessment:

B : odd and not always successful collection of short prose pieces

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 15/3/1997 .
Salon . 19/12/1996 Robert Spillman
The Spectator . 22/2/1997 Alain de Botton
TLS . 25/7/1997 Rasheed El-Enany

  From the Reviews:
  • "Echoes of an Autobiography is something of a surprise: not so much a record of a long life (Mr Mahfouz is now 85) as a collection of allusions and aphorisms. The obvious comparison is with the mystic musing of Lebanon's Kahlil Gibran (...) Look a little deeper, however, and what emerges is the familiar Mahfouz obsession with humanity's foibles." - The Economist

  • "Naguib Mahfouz (...) packs a lifetime of wisdom and reverence into this slim new book. This is not a dry, academic "I was born here, studied there" recounting, but a series of half-page meditations which capture the essence of a writer deeply tuned in to the spirituality of the everyday." - Robert Spillman, Salon

  • "If you are looking for an autobiography of Naguib Mahfouz, or even for the echoes of one, please ignore this book. (...) However, if what you want is the quintessential Mahfouz (...) you need look no further. It is all here in this quaint book of mystical aphorisms and parables, which is reminiscent of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. (...) The account of events we normally expect in an autobiography is nowhere to be found here. What we find is their profound meaning which is often lost on us as we get bogged down in the confused detail of life and the inevitable partiality of our vision." - Rasheed El-Enany, 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:

       Though titled Echoes of an Autobiography, the echoes in this collection are very faint indeed. That isn't necessarily a bad thing: in this tell-all and bare-all age an elliptical and spare variation on the theme is a welcome change. But Mahfouz's book ultimately strays too far away from the personal.
       Echoes of an Autobiography consists of short prose-pieces, each with a separate title. Few are more than a page in length, some essentially just a single sentence. Some two-thirds of the book does focus on the first-person experiences and memories of the author: brief scenes from a life. With the appearance of Sheik Abd-Rabbih al-Ta'ih then there is a shift, as this wise man's wisdom is then presented -- first related from the author's point of view, but then only presented as: "Sheik Abd-Rabbih al-Ta'ih said:".
       Mahfouz's memories and reflections offer intriguing but also frustratingly incomplete glimpses from his life, and in particular his youth. Episodes, loves, dreams are all too often only briefly recounted. Rarely does a piece offer greater obvious insight, though a few do -- "An Unwritten Letter" nicely considers the fate of Mahfouz and two of his childhood friends who all parted ways at the age of nine, one now an important judge, the other just sentenced to death for a murder.
       The sections offering the wisdom of Sheik Abd-Rabbih al-Ta'ih are also not entirely satisfactory, his pearls probably not to everyone's liking (or understanding). One can read a good deal into some of these sayings, but they are of a playful religious-mystic sort that might not satisfy those used to more precise expression. (No doubt, there are also translation-issues here, which further complicate matters.) So, for example, among the Sheikh's offerings:

The nearest man comes to his Lord is when he is exercising his freedom correctly.
With the inhalation of the universe and its exhalation, all joys and pains are in raptures.
If you are afflicted with doubt, then look at length in the mirror of your self.
       There are also genuinely touching and thoughtful pieces in this collection -- and it's loose and short enough that readers can easily breeze through it, likely finding parts that appeal. But it's an odd book -- an overlap of faint echoes, with some musical notes (Mahfouz does express himself well, and the translation is generally very readable) but too little melody to latch onto.

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Echoes of an Autobiography: Reviews: Naguib Mahfouz: Other books by Naguib Mahfouz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz (نجيب محفوظ, Nagib Machfus) was born in 1911 and died in 2006 He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988.

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