Cairo is burning.
Autumn Quail promises to be a novel of Egypt’s entropy as independence and fledgling self-governance struggle to reconcile the past with the future. It shows the fall from power and the post-revolution purge of government ministers and those who are connected with them.
Autumn Quail reveals the honesty that, sometimes, underlies corruption. It also reveals an optimism for the coexistence of old and new ideals. It is Mahfouz writing from the perspective of Egypt’s old regime – the constitutional monarchy and the liberalism of the then-dominant Wafd political party – as the 1952 revolution unfolds.
Mahfouz has done this more thoroughly in many of his other writings, and Autumn Quail is one of his weaker novels. Somewhere between short story and novel, Autumn Quail, for the purpose Mahfouz gave it, should have been a much shorter work.
Recently promoted, Isa is nearing a full ministerial post when the new regime uniformly sweeps him and his party compatriots away with a pension and two years’ salary. Isa loses more than his job. His fiancée, Salwa, and her family, headed by a prominent pasha now honorably retired, no longer want marriage.
Isa tries to hold onto his pre-revolution identity. Eventually marrying Qaddriyya, a barren woman, for her family’s money, Isa trades the possibility of progeny and future for the comfort of the money by which he was so accustomed to live. It isn’t until he catches sight of his daughter, the embodiment of a past romp with the kept woman Riri, that he aches for something more.
Where Autumn Quail falls short is in the very thing Mahfouz is trying to do. Its political argumentation is too noisy. His characters turn into sounding boards, echoing the points he wants to make. Too often and in ways that abruptly alter the story’s pacing, Isa gets caught up in political discussion with his friends. Mahfouz disjoints his story in his preference for ineffectual dialogue.
Mahfouz had the space for his characters to argue in this way in his large-scale Cairo trilogy – the longer polemics didn’t seem so long when they were a natural part of a more complete story. But in Autumn Quail the political too often subverts the literary necessity of character development. The points come out as rehearsed dialogue, the characters melt into each other and it hardly matters who the speaker is anymore. With these political discourses there isn’t room in the novel’s sub-200 pages for Mahfouz’s characters to come into their own.
Autumn Quail loses momentum in its verbosity. The first scene – the burning of Cairo – and the last, which shows a peaceable reconciling of past and future (one reminiscent of that in Karnak Cafe), make up the crux of the novel. Mahfouz didn’t need the forced dialogue to make his point. Isa’s relationships with Qaddriyya and Riri are strong enough.
— This review is the third in a three-part series on The Masthead that looks at Mahfouz’s critical novellas of the 1952 revolution and Nasser’s regime:
The Thief and the Dogs
Autumn Quail · Naguib Mahfouz · 1962
Roger Allen translation · Anchor Books, 1985 · 172 pages, paperback