cover image Adrift on the Nile

Adrift on the Nile

Naguib Mahfouz. Doubleday Books, $21 (167pp) ISBN 978-0-385-42322-9

A keen sense of life's futility and meaninglessness gnaws at Anis Zani, a pot-smoking civil servant in Cairo and the cultured but dazed protagonist of Mahfouz's probing novel of spiritual emptiness, first published in 1966. Anis, an addict who can scarcely keep his job, shares a houseboat on the Nile--and a water pipe full of hemp--with other bored, disaffected Cairenes, among them an opportunistic art critic, a womanizing actor, a woman who has deserted her husband, a laid-back writer and a cynical lawyer. A spirited female journalist joins them and critiques their nihilism in her notebook, which Anis steals--an absurd act without a clear motive. In drug-induced hallucinations he encounters pharaohs, Napoleon, Nero, and his wife, who died 20 years earlier, as did their small daughter. The houseboat revelers take a midnight automotive joyride, which turns to tragedy with a hit-and-run accident; guilt over their collective vow of silence tears the group apart. Nobel laureate Mahfouz ( The Cairo Trilogy ) writes hypnotic prose, by turns romantically lyrical and tartly astringent, spiced with ironical allusions to ancient Egypt and classical history, whose grandeur highlights by contrast the rootlessness of modern Egypt's secularized, cosmopolitan middle class. (Feb.)