Naguib Mahfouz, The Thief and the Dogs

Said Mahran is a fugitive once more. Imprisoned for four years on counts of burglary, he pursues vengeance for the perceived treacheries of his erstwhile friends and ex-wife at the same time that he seeks the affection of his 4-year-old daughter who never knew him.

Already new loves blossom and old thieves live ensconced in palatial villas, denouncing their old trade without irony. Said Mahran remains unchanged, though he nurses an embittered heart.

The Thief and the Dogs in its greater context is a novel of the 1952 revolution. In his novel Mahfouz shows how the revolution betrayed its origins and resulted in the same nepotism as before, the difference being only in the faces who benefited.

All of the anger and despair from that time are wound up in the character of Said Mahran. His motives are virtuous but his methods are execrable. The ambition is at odds with the violence that is, to Said Mahran, its lone conduit. His only refuges are the graveyard apartment of a prostitute and the plain suburban home of a Sheikh he can’t understand.

Said Mahran’s limited focus on revenge comes alive and turns feverish through Mahfouz’s use of stream of consciousness writing.We feel acutely the constraints his mind has placed on the world around him and feel in equal measure sympathy and revulsion.

Said Mahran is a man with forward-thinking sentiments but who is still mired in the old ways of doing things, and the people around him discreetly nod their heads in approval to Said at the same time that they shuffle away from him in disgust.

They all see it, the bait-and-switch that fooled them all in the beginning, but to them it’s over and done with and there’s no use shouting anymore. It wouldn’t work to shout anymore even if they tried. Said Mahran’s bullets sink only into the flesh of innocents – because the old way is gone and the old arguments are moot.

A reflection of the broader politics of the era, The Thief and the Dogs is a tangle of abhorrence, resignation and futility counterbalanced by only the coarsest scrap of hope for bringing real change to Egypt. Will this last scrap be thrown to the dogs as well?

— This review is the second in a three-part series on The Masthead that looks at Mahfouz’s critical novellas of the 1952 revolution and Nasser’s regime:

The Beggar
The Thief and the Dogs
Autumn Quail

The Thief and the Dogs · Naguib Mahfouz · 1961
Le Gassick and Badawi translation · Anchor Books, 1984 · 134 pages, paperback


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