Epic novels that dip richly into autobiography and a panoramic sense of place, time and politics are hardly uncommon. But few modern novels follow the form any more and, Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz excepted, such massive undertakings have not emanated from the Middle East and especially not from Egypt.
Ahdaf Soueif's "In the Eye of the Sun," a novel that does all these things, sometimes untidily, sometimes excessively, manages to communicate that sense of the disorderly profusion of life--perhaps because of its untidiness. It is life that stubbornly refuses to remain obedient and consistently finds the extraordinary within the ordinary. And it is life that is not limited to--or by--extended family so much as sustained, defined and enlarged by it.
Author Soueif, who currently lives in London, has accomplished two other things: She has written from a woman's perspective and has done it in English rather than her native Egyptian.
Her syntax and vocabulary sometimes betray the fact that this is English as a second language and, for American readers, British English rather than American English. Such clunkers as "full-upness" or "dissipatedness" creep into the text now and then, but on the whole the foreign rhythms lend the writing a cosmopolitan polish that suits it perfectly.
"In the Eye of the Sun" (the title is from Rudyard Kipling's "Song of the Wise Children") is difficult to pin down. Its sprawl at 785 pages can get in the way. This is a story about growing up in Egypt in the 1960s; a tangential Arab view of the Israeli-Arab conflict; a novel of love and sexual politics in the 1970s, and a tale of self-discovery in the midst of clashing cultures. It is not a political tract, a travelogue or even a romance in the conventional sense.
Its protagonist is the daughter of respected academics, a serious young woman named Asya al-Ulama, who, while pursuing a Ph.D. in the north of England, gets herself entangled in the barbs of emancipation. Trying to reconcile the constraints imposed by Egyptian custom with the more open ways of Europe makes the road to self-realization a lot rockier.
The family throughout is the anchor that lends continuity to her life, even as the civilization of the old world--the Egypt Asya knew as a child--unalterably recedes, acquiring the less recognizable face of the new. But it takes many crises for her to understand that her difficult marriage to the traditional and elitist Saif Madi is as bankrupt as, in the long run, is as the brief and passionate affair she ends up having with the self-centered, faintly New Age Englishman, Gerald Stone.
The novel, however, is so finitely centered on Asya and her traumatic rites of passage that the men don't really count--either in our vision or the novel's. They are stepping-stones to her growth and self-acceptance, figures drawn in precise yet limited detail.
More enlightening is the way the author presents Asya as the natural outgrowth of her Egyptian context. In his "Alexandria Quartet," Laurence Durrell wrote about an Egypt that was largely a psychological myth experienced by a interloper in the thrall of a different culture. Soueif writes about a place she owns, real and at least as vivid, but full of literal detail.
She names the Khamseen, that uniquely Egyptian sandstorm that turns skies red and permeates everything with a layer of grit. She names the streets of Cairo, the beaches of Alexandria, the shops, the foods, even the deep orange colors of the sunsets in Alexandria, so different from the gaudy pinks and greens of Upper Egypt.
It is a caressing book, written by a woman as comfortable describing the ritual of halawa, a caramelized sugar mixture that Egyptian women use to remove hair from their bodies, as she is evoking the rituals of death with its ululations, its confusions and its bewildering open houses.
But no one's perfect and Soueif can and does misjudge how much detail to include, how much to leave out. Long passages lose themselves in housekeeping minutiae or the repetitious wrangling of lovers. Life may be that way, but it's tiresome in a novel. Intimation is a better way--something Soueif knows how to do when she wants. Her political backgrounding of the Middle East during this period is much more subtle, from the nationalist deceptions of the Six Day War to the death of Nasser and the rise of Sadat, about whom the country was a lot more diffident.
Politics do not take center stage in "Sun," but neither are they mere window-dressing. They create a climate. You sense the ardor of a younger generation that is politically aware if not politically effective. Soueif takes no sides. Her Asya remains aloof, an observer. By the end of the book, she sees Egypt, which has never been good at providing material services, sinking to new lows even as it philosophically raises her to new heights.
Creating ambience--and, importantly, ambience from a rare female perspective--is what this author does best. She shows us the special intimacy of women working together in kitchens, young girls sharing secrets, children playing, elders nattering and generations finding strength in the bustle and emotional cacophony they share. Through it all there is Asya the child, the teen-ager, bride, daughter, woman, searching for her voice in a world defined by men.
The book could have been some 200 pages shorter with less focus on the bleakness of that university in the English north and fewer rounds of male-female jousting. But if this novel takes a while to get going, it also grabs you once it does. Its achievement is almost as significant as its ambition, becoming stylistically more and more self-assured as it progresses.
"In the Eye of the Sun" may be daunting, but it won't let you get lost. It provides a glossary of Egyptian terms at the end and a family tree at the beginning. Truly daunting will be finding the time to curl up and read.