Mohamed Al-Bosaty is an Egyptian novelist from the 60s generation who has been criticized for working in Naguib Mahfouz’s shadow. Highly critical of Egyptian cultural/literary power centers, Al-Bosaty was never officially recognized by his home country, despite his popularity and the wide critical acclaim his works have often received.
His new novel “El-Gou’ (Hunger) chronicles the life of an underprivileged countryside Egyptian family with revealing details, offering an unflinching insight into a world that has been distorted by stereotypes and over-simplifications.
“Hunger is a concentrated dose of stark realism devoid of literary lushness or artifice. Combining the narrator’s voice with the characters’ inner thoughts, Al-Bosaty portrays the family’s immediate concerns without suffusing the narrative with sophisticated psychological insights.
At the heart of the novel, told in less than 130 pages, is a burning, constant craving for food. The characters never attempt to better their lives or lift themselves from poverty’s bottomless pit. Al-Bosaty has robbed the scenes of his tale from any splendor that often characterizes stories of this kind while stripping his characters of any thoughtful reflections on their actions.
Set in an intellectually scarce and unemotional landscape, Al-Bosaty’s characters simply march blindly, powerlessly, into their destinies.
The novel is not as emotionally callous as some readers may presume. Al-Bosaty presents a very readable and rich account of the countryside, abundant with little stories here and there. The mood of the novel is, however, static. The point Al-Bosaty wants to make is that this life has always been like that and the possibility of change is almost non-existent. When change does happen, it’s short-lived and is never contemplated in retrospect.
“Hunger is divided into three parts, each following one family member: the husband, the wife and the child. In the first part, we meet Zaghloul, the patriarch and indolent bread-winner. Zaghloul takes on any kind of work when available. Otherwise, he sits idly around when money is enough to buy a couple of days’ supplies. When he does work, he only looks for daily labor, never aspiring for a stable, proper job.
Zaghloul’s biggest joy in life is strolling around town, ogling the faces of strangers, and eavesdropping on conversations in local coffee shops. When no work is available, he occasionally enjoys attending funerals and helping people stack chairs afterwards without asking for cash, telling his wife that “the reward is God’s reward.
Amid such conditions, his wife is the one who has to worry about the children as she fails to obliterate her husband’s indifference. He doesn’t smoke cigarettes yet he decides to buy a couple even when the family doesn’t have enough money for bread. Whenever his wife scolds him, he always gives her the same response: “That’s just what happened.
In one of the most revealing parts of the book, Zaghloul spies on a group of city students talking about politics, city women, and the meaning of life. He understands some parts of the conversation, misses others, and, as he puts it, leaves with his blood boiling. He questions several of the students ideas and starts to admire education.
Yet instead of re-thinking his life and the conditions that led him to where he is, the one thing he chooses to do is stop the town’s sheikh and ask him “why were there three prophets and not just one? and “if God is so powerful, why does God demand people’s worship?
Consequently, he s punished for the mere act of questioning.
Al-Bosaty is, first and foremost, a short story writer; a fact illustrated by the two other parts of the novel that are essentially a variation of the first part. In the second one, the readers get acquainted further with the wife Sekeena whose life revolves around borrowing food when there is no money and repaying her debts as quickly as possible when the money comes.
Al-Bosaty further expounds on Sekeena’s unyielding obsession with the big house next door and its inhabitants. In the third segment, we follow the young son, Zaher, who works at a bakery, sweeping the floor in order to get bread at the end of the day. When he’s not working, Zaher plays with a well-off friend of his, who takes notice of his constant hunger and passes him a sandwich every now and then.
“Hunger is a compelling social portrayal yet lacks tangible commentary from the author. It is the story of a family that wakes up every day waiting for something to happen, for someone out there to lift them from their sorry lives, for a God to finally smile down on them.
Each member of the family has absolutely no will or strength to change their reality; they can’t even imagine the possibility of them having the ability to take charge of their own lives. They are neither miserable nor content, they simply live somewhere in the middle without questioning anything.
Great literature provides a deep and genuine insight into the human condition. “Hunger is most definitely a perfect example.