Reviewed by Rose City Reader.
Published in 1965, The Beggar is, on the surface at least, the story of Omar’s midlife crisis. While less overtly political than Naguib Mahfouz’s other works, this novella takes on the biggest “political” issue of all – the meaning of life. Omar’s tale is a metaphor for the “midlife crisis” of modern Egypt, 17 years after its 1952 revolution, as both Omar and the country search for meaning after achieving worldly success.
The story reunites three childhood friends all engaged in the same struggle to find the deeper purpose of their adult lives: Othman was a bomb-throwing rebel back in their earlier days. Now, out of prison after 20 years, he is trying to adjust to an Egypt that has adopted the socialist ideals he fought for in his youth. He fights to channel his revolutionary zeal in a post-revolutionary bureaucracy.
Mustafa was an idealistic playwright who sold out and is now the host of a popular radio program sponsored by a snack food company. He embodies the discord between artistic endeavors and modern commerce.
Omar had been an aspiring poet with stars in his eyes, before he became a lawyer and real estate developer. Now, in his 40s, he is bored with his matronly wife and completely indifferent to his law practice. He cannot even get worked up over the news that the government is going to nationalize the apartment buildings he owns.
In an effort to recover from this enervating “illness, ” Omar seeks stimulation in the usual combination or wine, women, and song. His reprehensible behavior – abandoning his pregnant wife for a series of trysts with showgirls – demonstrates how the pursuit of mindless, easy entertainment can lead to ruin.
The title comes from a passage in which Mustafa questions whether Omar’s crisis is caused by “suppressed art.” Omar supposes that art may be the solution, but not the cause. Then both wonder whether they would be better off, metaphysically, if they were scientifically inclined, rather than artistically, because science would offer answers that art cannot. Mustafa concludes that they cannot find the solution to Omar’s crisis, stating, “Since there is no revelation in our age, people like you can only go begging.”
The biggest problem is not the content, but the presentation. Mahfouz’s writing style is difficult to follow. He changes verb tenses at random, he uses dialog without identifying the speakers, and he changes the point of view over and over. Often Omar is referred to as “he” and “you” and “I” all in the same passage or even paragraph. It is hard to tell if these are intentional techniques or translation problems, but they are distracting.
These technical problems aside, The Beggar is full to the rim with metaphors and moral issues. It would be a good choice for a high school English class as there is plenty to chew on for such a short book.