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Tales of Islam

- Abstract

The novel, it used to be said, brings the news about our social and moral condition. In the West, many novelists have taken to abdicating that role in favor of political fantasy, epistemological sport, or the fingering of psychosexual wounds. But in the Islamic world, or so it would seem from a number of recently published translations, novels still focus on the great public questions as they shape individual consciousness and conduct. As a way into that world’s understanding of itself, fiction may afford a deeper and more variegated view of reality than the one that comes to us on editorial pages or in the evening news.

The current wonder among literary imports from the Islamic world is Orhan Pamuk, a Turk with many connections in the West. Before him, only two novelists from that world had won any significant reputation in English translation: the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, known principally for The Cairo Trilogy (1956-57) and the only Arab writer ever awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Abdelrahman Munif, born of Saudi parents in Lebanon, who likewise made his mark with a trilogy, Cities of Salt (1984-89). Mahfouz’s masterpiece portrays three generations of a Cairene family from 1917 to 1945, and is informed by a fundamentally liberal and universalist vision. Munif’s trilogy, by contrast, tends to scant private in favor of public life: his protagonists transform a traditional Arab desert kingdom into an oil-pumping subsidiary of the American industrial empire, and his trilogy is marked by strident polemicizing against the predatory West and its Arab collaborators.

About the Author

Algis Valiunas writes on culture and politics for COMMENTARY and other magazines. His "Goethe’s Magnificent Self" appeared in January.