And then from hour to hour we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale."
As You Like It. Act ii. Sc. 7
Written in 1982, "The Final Hour" is the latest book by Naguib Mahfouz to be published by the American University of Cairo Press. It is `classic' Mahfouz in the sense that it takes one family and tells the family's story over two or three generations. It is also `classic' because, as with much of Mahfouz's work you witness the internal dynamic of a Cairene family in the context of a tumultuous and changing world outside the family's house or alley.
The story starts off in the 1930s. Hamid and Saniya Burhan escape from the confines of inner Cairo and build a house in Helwan, then a quiet, leafy suburb. The house quickly becomes Saniya's castle and her whole life is encapsulated by a family photograph taken at a time from "from hour to hour we ripe and ripe". Over the course of the story we see children born and marriages end. As the family grows we see how time and events take this family from ripe to ripe to, if not rot and rot, to trouble and strife. Despite the cloistered walls of this house the tumultuous course of 20th-century Egypt: the fall of the monarchy, strikes and rebellions, the Wafd Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, Suez, the rise of Nasser and a series of wars with Israel all take their toll on the family.
As noted in translator Roger Allen's Afterword there is some surface similarity between the story line of the Final Hour and the The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street (Everyman's Library) in its multi-generational look at a family in Cairo. Although Allen takes pains to point out the differences I do think the comparison highlights some the modest difficulty I had with the book. In Cairo Trilogy Mahfouz takes three volumes to tell his family saga. Here, he covers three generations and fifty years of Egyptian history in a little bit more than 150 pages. The number of people involved in a multi-generational story and the speed with which they were introduced did cause me to have a bit of trouble keeping track of who everyone was. Specifically, I'd have to backtrack to refresh my memory. This was not a big problem but it did interrupt the flow of my reading sometimes.
Allen's Afterword also includes a very useful glossary of names and events. Mahfouz was writing for an Egyptian audience, not an American one, and having a handy reference to explain Mahfouz's references was extremely helpful.
In summary, I very much enjoyed The Final Hour. As I noted in my review of In the Time of Love: A Modern Arabic Novel Mahfouz's writing take me to a place I have never visited and makes me feel as if I am living in and walking through Cairo. The Final Hour is no exception. It is a very good story.