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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Karnak Café

Naguib Mahfouz

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To purchase Karnak Café

Title: Karnak Café
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Genre: Novel
Written: 1974 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 110 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Karnak Café - US
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  • Arabic title: الكرنك
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Roger Allen
  • Previously translated by Saad El-Gabalawy and published in Three Contemporary Egyptian Novels (1979)

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Our Assessment:

B : solid sketch of a troubled period

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Sun . 18/7/2007 Eric Ormsby

  From the Reviews:
  • "Like much of Mahfouz's work, this is a caustic novel, laced with harsh ironies and mordant insights. It exposes the dislocations suffered by a whole generation in the wake of what Arabs call al-Naksa (.....) In other hands this novel might have become a tract. Although every page smolders with justified fury, Mahfouz was above mere denunciation. His loving descriptions of the Karnak, with its passionate and enigmatic proprietress -- every café worthy of the name must have a lady with a past -- together with his selfeffacement before his characters, each of whom speaks in turn to the unnamed narrator, push the novel beyond simplistic categories." - Eric Ormsby, The New York Sun

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:

       Karnak Café is a short novella set around -- and marked by -- the war of 1967 and everything that went with it in Egypt. The narrator stumbles across the Karnak Café of the title and immediately finds it a sympathetic haven -- not least because the proprietress is Qurunfula, "the roseate dream from the 1940s". A small oasis in the middle of the big city, it has just the right atmosphere:

Here you get to sense past and present in a warm embrace, the sweet past and glorious present.
       The narrator becomes a regular and gets to know Qurunfula and some of the other patrons, fitting right in. But there's a change in atmosphere when he arrives one day: "only to find all the chairs normally occupied by the young people empty". The reasons must be political -- and there's a strong suspicion that someone at the café must have passed on information to the authorities: the open conversation about all subjects, including politics, at the café proves to have been unsafe in a world where the government doesn't trust its citizens, and sets them against each other so they don't trust each other either.
       Even when the young people return, things don't return to normal. The atmosphere has been stifled, and: "we decided to steer clear of politics as far as possible". And there are other absences as well.
       Mahfouz doesn't paint very full character-portraits here, but he does convey the feelings of the people, especially their almost blind nationalist pride and firm conviction that militarily Egypt is unbeatable even when they don't fully support much that the government does. (He also conveys their rather stunned surprise when they see how feeble Egyptian military might turns out to be.) It's also an angry novella, as Mahfouz presents the accounts of several who have been compromised by the near-paranoid state that is terrified of anything that borders on dissent, turned into informers because they are left with no alternatives. Mahfouz only describes what happens in a small, quiet part of Cairo, but it's clear he's condemning the government's self-defeating and -undermining practices, showing a few individuals who are destroyed by it -- and clearly implying that this approach can only lead to the further radicalization of the opposition.
       First published more than thirty years ago, but only (readily) available in English translation now, it's surprisingly (indeed, shockingly) contemporary and relevant, as the present-day Egyptian government continues to act much as its earlier incarnation does in the book. The cost, to those who are basically innocent -- generally average folk, who just want to get on with their lives -- is well-presented in Karnak Café, and though there is no radical or particularly violent reaction in the novella, it's clear that these conditions can only lead to a worse future, not a better one.
       A surprisingly dark book, Karnak Café is a good, quick read, combining both Mahfouz's usual presentation of the Cairo-world (though less in-depth than in most of his fiction), as well as a more bitter presentation of the conditions of the times (and misguided direction of the state).

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Karnak Café: 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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