The Thief and The Dogs - Review
“The Thief and the Dogs” is one of the Egyptian author and Nobel Laureate Naquib Mahfouz’s most celebrated works. It charts the life of Said Mahran, a thief recently released from jail and intent on having his vengeance on the people who him there. The novel was published in 1961, and Said’s despair reflects disappointment in revolution and new order in Egypt, and Said is not only a thief, but also, a revolutionary anarchist at heart, with some pretentions of intellect and justice.
Heavily dependent on imagery, in typical style mastered by Mahfouz, the plot makes Said, by necessity a tragic hero chased down by the dogs. The recurring images of prison, betrayal and darkness amongst others also permeate the text. The novel is remarkable because it is the first to employ to stream of consciousness style of writing in Arabic. It helped, therefore, to confirm Mahfouz’s stature as a pioneer in the field of Arab literature.
Said’s world revolves around Nabawiyya, his former wife, and Sana’ his daughter. Once in love with the former, she was now betrayed him by marrying his friend ‘LLish. Central to the making of Said Mahran is also Ra’uf’LLwan, his one-time criminal mentor, who used the same revolutions rhetoric, but now, being respected journalist and businessman, is in seeming oppositions to Said, who’s outlook hasn’t changed. There perceived betrayal throw the protagonist into utmost confusion and his initial calculation in revenge becomes ever more a wild flailing against the whole world. Only Nur, a prostitute, and Tarzan, a café owner, provide Said with any respite from his anger and the world at large which is closing in on him, yet in time even they cannot help him. Instead of attempting to piece together his life, Said instead plans to wreak vengeance upon those who had betrayed him. He feels his life had been destroyed by his time of suffering in prison.
The Thief and The Dogs is a tightly-knit, fast paced novel that delves deeply into the mind of an intelligent, articulate man gone terribly astray. The book is a powerful work, following the necessary plummet of Said’s mind and soul as he jumps headfirst in the abyss. Whether the betrayer is his ex-wife, his former friend, or his thieving contacts, Said encourages himself to action by identifying himself as an abstract, not an individual. In a final burst of control madness, Said declares to the world,” Whoever kills me will be killing the millions. I am the hope and the dream, the redemption of cowards; I am good principles, consolation, the tears that recall the weeper to humility. And the declaration that I’m mad must encompass all who are living. Examine the cause of this insane occasion, then reach your judgment however you wish!”.
Mahfouz adds the metaphysical elements of Egyptian society in the form of the character of the Sheikh, a kindly religious leader who houses Said when he is trouble, who speaks in riddles taken from the Koran and other holy writings. The Sheikh acts as a sounding board for Said, listening to his confusions without really saying much beyond truisms or wise sayings. These responses, however, tend to juxtapose neatly with Said’s predicament, shedding a spiritual and profound light on the events following Said’s release from jail. Toward the end of the novel, Said asks the Sheikh,” Are you capable of straightening the shadow of something crooked?” The Sheikh, who has harbored Said after he has murdered innocents and robbed former friends, replies only, and sadly,” I do not concern myself with shadows.”
A complex book, The Thief and The Dogs does not seem to lose out in translation to essence of the Egyptian society. It is also an excellent metaphor for the hopes and aspirations of people and the revolutions alike, often pitting the two against each other when euphoria of change fades away.