In “The Automobile Club of Egypt,” the latest novel by Alaa Al Aswany, he deploys the same literary techniques on display in his hugely popular “The Yacoubian Building” and less successful “Chicago”: ensemble cast, characters drawn from different walks of life, roving narrative focus. Here, the setting is late 1940s Cairo, roiled by a revolutionary fervor not dissimilar to that which we saw in early 2011. The story gives short shrift to plot construction in favor of probing characters’ multilayered relationships, but nonetheless boasts rich and rewarding material.
The club of the book’s title is both a department of motor vehicles and an exclusive lodge where car-owning foreigners and Egyptians meet for rest and recreation. Egypt is a nominally independent monarchy (in reality, the British run much of the country’s affairs) governed along with the Sudan by the here unnamed King Farouk I, whom the author somewhat priggishly depicts as an obese sluggard with a penchant for debauchery and frequenting the club’s casino. “We are in agreement,” declaims a revolutionary activist addressing members of her multiparty political committee, “that the king’s love of gambling has turned the Automobile Club into the seat of Egypt’s government. We are in agreement that we should expose the king’s sordid dealings and his subservience to the English.”
After a couple of false starts (one of which, ludicrously, recounts Karl Benz’s invention of the automobile in late 19th-century Germany), the yarn begins in earnest. Al Aswany employs his preferred polyphonic approach to storytelling, with the club a sort of shared multilevel stage. An omniscient narrator conveys the action in most chapters, though specific characters narrate others.
The club is presided over by James Wright, a haughty Briton who refuses to grant pensions to Egyptian employees. Alku, a Nubian who is the king’s personal valet, doubles as overseer of the club’s serving staff, and has them beaten for the slightest infraction.
But change is afoot. Wright’s daughter Mitsy and Kamel Gaafar, a law student turned both storeroom assistant and spy for the revolutionary underground, fall in love. Meanwhile, the communist Abdoun, who works with the bartender, launches a drive to end Alku’s practice of corporal punishment.
For the most part, translator Russell Harris renders Al Aswany’s Arabic, both the modern standard variety employed for narration and the Egyptian vernacular reserved for snatches of dialogue, into clear and expressive English. Yet he freely resorts to jarring idioms. Most are British or American, as with “regular punters,” “school of hard knocks,” and “chump.”
Perhaps counter-intuitively, given the author’s apparently subconscious tendency to associate dark skin with lack of virtue, the dusky Mahmoud Gaafar (Kamel’s brother), emerges as one of the most sympathetic characters. He suffers from developmental problems, dropping out of school to become a driver for the club, and is consistently portrayed by Al Aswany as kind-hearted and fair. That he’s also handsome and muscle-bound leads him to stumble into the job of gigolo catering to lonely widows who order their meals from the club. His experiences come off as both touching and hilarious.
Overall, “The Automobile Club of Egypt” (published in Arabic as “The Automobile Club” in 2013) proves enjoyable and sometimes compelling, what with an assortment of individually arresting characters — some simpatico, others vile, all colorful — working cheek-by-jowl at the title establishment, or else affiliated with it as patrons or employee kin. Indeed, though the author doesn’t quite throw 1940s Cairo into relief, especially in the sense of physical appearance, he populates the fabled city’s chief luxury retreat with intriguing men and women whose myriad travails lure the reader into their personal lives. In this seductive and generally satisfying story, Al Aswany, the dentist turned novelist, continues his newfound practice of probing the hearts and minds of one spirited cast of disparate Egyptian characters after another.
THE AUTOMOBILE CLUB OF EGYPT
By Alaa Al Aswany
Translated from the Arabic by Russell Harris
Knopf, 496 pp., $27.95