Tyler 's Reviews > The Yacoubian Building

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany
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's review
Jul 08, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: gay-interest
Recommended to Tyler by: _An Egyptian
Recommended for: Those trying to make sense of the Middle East
Read in July, 2008

Narrators tell stories; protagonists tell them; characters in novels do, too. But in The Yacoubian Building, an apartment complex on a downtown street tells the story of a whole nation. This ten-story structure, I found, has a lot to say.

The building doesn't talk, of course, but it shelters the many people whose lives the book recounts. Brought together only by their place of residence, these very different people are, by the end, brought together in a second way, by the common experience of life in modern Egypt.

Just what it's like to live in Egypt is the real story. No number of articles about the Middle East can convey a feeling, so instead of telling us directly, the author paints a picture, a mosaic with a gestalt to it that makes the whole picture of Egypt suddenly pop into view. This shocking image is ... a sight.

The character sketches at the start of the book give readers a glimpse of the daily lives and passions of the denizens of the building, who represent every class of society. As they go about their lives, the latter portion of the narrative shows them stumbling into a world bearing a sordid resemblance to something George Orwell might have concocted.

In this world, it goes without saying that merit is seldom rewarded. Money, not law, makes things happen, even bad things. People wake up at night to find the police in their living rooms -- or maybe thugs hired by some rich man. Anyone can end up in a police station at any time, some never again to be seen. Torture, brutality, beatings and weird, weird sexism constitute everyday hazards.

The story of the building itself, told mainly through the eyes of a long-time resident, stands as a proxy for the bittersweet change that has swept over Egypt in the past two generations. This book hints at the actual sources of Egypt's current problems; in reality, people dare not discuss them openly.

Curiously, the book cannot be said to have an entirely negative feel. Egyptians simply don't have it in them to collapse into a Russian-style pessimism. In the book's moral I found its power: The narrative conveys not one, but many messages about the state of Egyptian society. In each you can find yourself saying, "So what has become obvious is ..." The book allows you to think about many things as you read.

Readers will like the artful approach the author employs, as the choice of a building to tell the story implies. Al-Aswany relates his characters with a confidential tone, as if he were in a private conversation with us. His candid remarks about each character tell us everything we need to know about the character without saying too much. The story neither droops into sentimentality nor takes a desultory turn. The writing is clean and efficient, with the right things said at the right time using no extra words.

The stories themselves are enough to stagger the senses, considering the society from which they emerge. The book has been a bestseller in Egypt, its subject matter so controversial that people never run out of things to say about it.

I rate this a four -- I really like it. If it were a little longer, I'd give it a five because it's that good. I highly recommend The Yacoubian Building for anyone who likes good literature, and for Westerners in search of realistic insight into the question, "What on earth is going on over there?"
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