“Master of His Own Destiny”: Alaa Al Aswany, The Automobile Club of Egypt


A great leap forward was made by the American Henry Ford, who started mass-producing cars. His strategy was to reduce the profit margin but increase the volume of production and sales. This was based on a simple conviction — that the employees of his own factory should be able to afford an automobile. And so the automobile went from being a toy for the rich to an accessible means of transport that changed people’s lives and way of thinking completely. Great distances were no longer daunting. An automobile owner could work far away from home; he could take his family to the beach and have them home in the same day. The automobile established man’s sense of independence and individuality and confirmed him as master of his own destiny. . . .

When the administrative committee sat down to draw up the Club’s rules and bylaws, two problems arose. First, should the Club allow Egyptians to become members? This idea was rejected by a majority, led by the Englishman Mr. Wright. . . . The other issue was that of the staff. The committee members naturally hoped to employ Europeans. When they studied the matter, however, it became clear that the cost of employing foreign staff would be astronomical. Facing this insurmountable problem, some committee members suggested staffing the club with Egyptians.

I had a hard time getting started with The Automobile Club of Egypt. Part of the problem is that Al Aswany himself fumbles the opening, or at least that’s how it seems to me. The novel actually has two false starts, the first a metafictional chapter in which “the author” is mysteriously confronted with his two main characters, who have come to give him the full version of the story in his novel. Nothing at all is made of this for the rest of the book: I expected the frame to be completed in a final metafictional chapter, but it isn’t. Then the novel starts up again with an account of Karl Benz’s invention of the car. This chapter sets up the symbolic as well as literal importance of the automobile, with all its socially transformative potential — but it too has no real place in the novel that unfolds. In fact, cars themselves are barely present in the novel, though that, as is quickly apparent, is part of the novel’s underlying irony: the Automobile Club of Egypt is not a radical engine of social mobility but an elite institution dedicated to preserving the racial and political status quo.

Once you get past these odd faux-beginnings, The Automobile Club of Egypt still requires some patience, in very much the same way that The Yacoubian Building does. Al Aswany is brilliant at introducing a panoply of characters and gradually weaving their disparate stories into a web that is as intricate and complicated as the society they belong to. Though some (the offensive Englishman Mr. Wright, for example) are two-dimensional, most of them are highly individual, and the novel’s interest builds as their different hopes and efforts and failures coalesce around a larger idea, in this case the possibility that they might challenge, perhaps even overcome, the evils of the English occupation. You hardly even know how much you are coming to care, or worry about, or resent some of them — until you notice you are now anxiously turning the page to find out what happens to them.

autoclubAl Aswany avoids a simplistic “us vs. them” account: some of his English characters are intensely sympathetic to and involved in the nationalist movement, and some of the Egyptian staff at the Automobile Club collude in their own subjugation, partly through need and fear, but also partly through habits ingrained through a long cultural history of deference to authority. The cruelties of the Egyptian characters to each other is often more overt than the evils of colonialism, but it’s also always clear that the systemic injustice of occupation undermines all efforts for progress and moral improvement. Though the novel is pointedly political, it manages never to be didactic: instead, Al Aswany’s quietly persistent differentiation of his cast of characters just keeps undermining the insulting abstractions on which people’s prejudices depend.

I don’t know if there’s anything striking about Al Aswany’s style in Arabic. I would characterze the English translation as “prosaic”: there’s a flatness to it that I’ve noticed in other translations I’ve read recently, including Maurizio de Giovanni’s Bastards of Pizzofalcone books, and that I also found conspicuous and a bit tiresome in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. This has me wondering, of course, about the effect of translation on style: am I reacting to an inevitable dulling of musicality or idiosyncrasy, or to differences that can’t be resolved between meaning in one language and meaning in another? Or perhaps these are novelists who themselves write prose with little flourish or eloquence. At any rate, The Automobile Club of Egypt reads a little thumpingly, one thing after another. It succeeds as well as it does because it’s interesting: because of the drama it creates through its people, all in their own ways experiencing a time of transition in which their identities are being challenged and reshaped by the ways the world around them is changing.

By the end, it’s not clear that any of them have mastered their destinies, though, which is one reason I would have liked a return to that metafictional opening. What sense should we make of the liberty those characters have to confront their own author and insist on having all of their “thoughts and feelings” included? What, if any, implication does starting that way have for what follows? I really can’t figure it out.

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