Certain novels complicate the very notion of literary enjoyment. This, by the author of the international bestseller The Yacoubian Building, is such a one. Despite its gripping narrative, compelling structure and vivid characters, every time I picked it up it was with a sinking heart. In telling the story of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 through the viewpoint of a variety of Cairenes both for and against, Alaa Al Aswany holds out the slender straw of hope against the slashing shears of repression.
Aswany’s skewering of the excesses of corruption — of the illegal acquisition of properties and businesses, of the infiltration of media organisations and institutions — is written in a deceptively benevolent style, further enhancing the background noise of disquiet and outright terror, which grows almost deafening as the novel progresses. The general’s wife regularly holds “seminars” for Sheikh Shamel, who purports to be a respectable Islamic scholar, but whose “Godliness” TV channel is a front for the procuring of vulnerable young women; meanwhile, the general’s treasured daughter, medical student Danya, is beginning to rebel against the very regime her father is paid to maintain...
If the novel has a major flaw it is that Aswany relies too much on stereotypes to create a sense of depth and connection. Yet despite this The Republic of False Truths is a blistering, bold dissection of a failed revolution, and of the disenchantment and dissent that inevitably follow.
One sympathetic figure is a Copt intellectual, initially sunk in a haze of cynicism and hashish, who finds purpose and self-respect by involving himself with the revolution and a working-class woman. Disillusion, though, results for most, as believers in the possibility of national reform are horribly disabused. A masterly panorama of doomed revolution, Aswany’s novel puts him in the company of writers such as Joseph Conrad or Mario Vargas Llosa as an outstanding fictional confronter of authoritarianism and its entrenched evils.