After the warranted success and critical acclaim of Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, I couldn’t resist but to read Friendly Fire, his new collection of stories. I read the book in two sittings as it was simply not possible to leave it alone, while I consciously tried to slow myself down to admire Aswany’s beautiful prose and subtext in each story.
The craft of showing
Aswany is Egyptian so it should come as no surprise that all his stories are set in Egypt and are about Egypt. What is remarkable in each and every story is his ability to ‘show’ the themes he’s tackling. Now this is easily said than done and I’m certain all writers out there know what I’m talking about. Aswany accomplishes this constantly and consistently, which makes for a visual read and the characters, even in a two page story, demand the reader’s sympathy.
Not only do we see a character’s plight in each story, but we feel for the character on every step of the struggle to overcome the odds. Take for example this piece of dialogue from ‘The Kitchen Boy':
Hisham nodded. The chairman continued, “You will do what we tell you to do. Be careful not to object or complain. Everything has its price. You want to become a surgeon? Then you have to pay the price, just as we all did – in sweat and toil, abuse and insults. And three years from now, if I like you, I will sign with this very hand the decision appointing you an assistant lecturer at the university. If, on the other hand, I do not like you, I will dispense with your services and you will go back to the Ministry of Health to do donkey work, just like the rest of the donkeys there.”
Layers and subtext
Of course, being set in Egypt does require the reader to understand certain nuances of the culture (or similar cultures, mostly in terms of being Islamic and Arabic), and to understand certain nuances of the government (or similar ones like those in many third world countries that lack an authentic functioning democracy). Such background knowledge helps to appreciate more fully the themes of corruption, religious hypocrisy, bureaucracy and false intentions. This knowledge though isn’t necessary , however, to enjoy the pleasure of his writing.
The longer stories have protagonists that are acute in their observations and aware of the difficulties that stand in their way. These characters are fully rounded and it’s easy for the reader to forget that it’s Aswany’s voice, thus keeping the narrator’s voice solely through the protagonist. The layers and character development slowly reveal the subtext in the stories, leaving the reader full with sympathy and understanding.
This collection is a worthy contribution to world literature. There’s also an informative preface to the book in which Aswany talks about how the book came about – or, more precisely, almost how it was never to come about. He seems to be at the peak of his writing powers and should be read both for the content of his stories and the style of his writing.