Review: “Chicago” by Alaa Al Aswany


It’s difficult not to sympathise with Margaret Mitchell. After she put down her pen upon completion of “Gone With the Wind”, she must have wondered, “how can I top this?” The same situation faced Harper Lee after she wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird”. If I recall correctly, J.D. Salinger disappeared for years after the publication of “Catcher in the Rye”, preferring to become a hermit rather than face the typewriter again.

However, most writers don’t have the time or the financial capacity to choose a poetic form of exile. Rather, they have to keep pushing onwards towards the inevitable second work, and hope for the best.

I couldn’t shake these thoughts as I read Alaa Al Aswany’s latest novel, “Chicago”, which was published last October. His first major novel, “The Yacoubian Building”, was masterful, a key work which provided inspiration and information that I used in writing my PhD. That novel established Al Aswany as a master of “human mosaics”, he created a long work out of assembling a number of narratives, which in my opinion is an admirable reflection of day-to-day reality.

With the Yacoubian Building, the mosaic had a clear, strong frame in which the bricolage was contained and constrained; it also helped a great deal that Al Aswany had worked in a building of that name. In “Chicago”, the mosaic is assembled within the city limits, specifically, within the campus of the University of Illinois and its environs.

Yet, the frame does not hold: despite the title and setting, this is most decidedly an Egyptian novel. Most of the protagonists are Egyptian; though it must be said all of the Egyptian characters in the novel are emigres or overseas students. Very little is mentioned about any Egyptian neighbourhoods within Chicago or the presence of a permanent diaspora. Indeed, apart from some historical notes about the city, the setting is incidental to the story. Aswany’s research even falls down in some places: he suggests Chicago is called the Windy City due to its inclement weather. This has been proven to be false: the moniker came about due to the pomposity and long-windedness of Chicago politicians.

I’ve been to Chicago; I first arrived there on a summer’s day, but a chill wind had blown in off Lake Michigan and thus the city was covered in a cold mist. Shorts and a t-shirt were inadequate. Yet, a few hours later and the sun shone out again.

The city was full of lively bars and brownstone buildings, great museums and jazz clubs; like a number of great cities, Chicago can create the illusion that it is the entire world and that it’s impossible to see and know it all. There is an air of industry, grit, effort, yet sophistication, culture and sheer naughtiness. The politicians may be crooks but they do it with a smile. Things may not run well all the time, but the gin of 1920’s speakeasies still flows through its veins. It’s a place of contradictions. However, in my opinion, Aswany under-utilises the setting’s potential, and its possible impact on his characters.

That said, the characters themselves are very interesting: however, some items did make me raise an eyebrow. Really, is the medical faculty of the University of Illinois a bolthole for Egyptian exiles? These exiles range from the Americanised to the fiercely traditional, encompassing both Muslims and Copts. If there is one thing that unites them all it is the impression that Egypt is not something any of them left behind, rather, Egypt is there with them.

It’s there with a brilliant surgeon, who left for America because he was discriminated against for being a Copt. It’s there with a professor of medicine because he believes himself to be a coward for not having stood up to the regime long ago. It’s with a young couple struggling with love: thrown together by the circumstances of their university, they realise that actual “courting” is atypical, and yet they need each other. It’s with an Egyptian professor who believes himself thoroughly Americanised, but then he discovers that he has rather traditional ideas when it comes to dealing with his daughter. Egypt hangs over a young poet in exile, who has mixed feelings about falling in love with an American Jewish girl, but no such hesitation about wishing for the downfall of the Egyptian government. Aswany even brings in a member of the Egyptian security services who threatens the poet; at this point, Chicago almost fades away entirely. We are back in Cairo. If that was the point – that you can take the Egyptian out of Egypt but not the Egypt out of the Egyptian, well all right. But using Chicago to this end, and making it such a focus that it lends the book its title, seems somewhat odd.

I had another problem with this novel: its preoccupation with sex. Yes, the effect that lust has on people can be an interesting dynamic, however there is a point where it detracts from rather than supplements the narrative. For example, one of the American wives of an Egyptian professor, is almost incidental to the story until we are taken through a rather painful narrative in which she purchases her first sex toy. We know more about this aspect of her than anything else, which seems rather shallow. Similarly, we are introduced to the misadventure of the poet trying to arrange a liaison with a prostitute, and the awkward fumblings of a devout Muslim couple who are yet to be married. There were more finer feelings in the Yacoubian Building; it is a shame Al Aswany wasn’t able to produce them here.

Despite its weaknesses, “Chicago” has one great virtue to recommend it: it’s a good read. I picked it up in the morning and finished it in the afternoon of the same day. Not all of this alacrity is due to the speed at which I read: even when he isn’t at his best, Al Aswany draws you in, makes you suspend disbelief, even if that suspension is tentative. It isn’t the “Yacoubian Building” – however, at least he’s gotten through the barrier of tension and pain that surrounds a second major novel. Liberated from this, it will be fascinating to see what he produces next.

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