Alaa-Al-Aswany’s novel has a curious timelessness about it. The Egypt it depicts doesn’t seem all that far removed from Albert Cossery’s Splendid Conspiracy. The matrix of heat, poverty and power generates a torpor which suggests an unchanging world, one where none of its three defining elements will ever change. Power, above all, resides in the grasp of a select, military-protected few, whose grubby self-centredness ensures the nation remains in a state of neo-feudalism. What affects the country is not capitalism, communism or Islamism; it’s venality, dressed up as politics. In the face of this monolithic governing principle, for ordinary citizens to aspire to anything better feels hopeless. Against this backdrop, the lives of the novel’s multiple protagonists play themselves out, almost all headed towards a desultory conclusion.
However, this isn’t the fifties. it’s the nineties, with the US and its allies, including Egypt, on the point of going to war with Iraq for a first time. As a result, this is a Cairo which is both old-hat and new-hat. The events of the past decade are prefigured. Something is stirring, something which will continue to incubate over the course of the next twenty years or so before it erupts in Tahrir Square. Literature has the power to act like a depth sounder, dropped off the side of the boat, fathoming the deep. In the lives of Taha and Busayna, above all, the currents which are dragging Egyptian society towards revolution and conflict are sounded out. The novel’s artistry lies in the way it knits its portrait of its world together, illustrating, through the present tense of its action, Egypt's past and future.