Maryam’s Maze by Mansoura Ez Eldin, translated by Paul Starkey
Here I go again starting with a book backwards … in the ending “Translator’s Note,” Paul Starkey writes, “Readers of Maryam’s Maze who are already familiar with the author’s short stories will quickly feel themselves at home in this more extended work, which again reveals the author’s preoccupation with the relationship between dreams and reality, and by the influence of the past on the present.” So what that seems to suggest is that to read Mansoura Ez Edin’s earlier stories might better illuminate this, her debut novel. Perhaps that’s where I went wrong … because reading the novel alone was neither familiar nor illuminating.
Two related narratives are intertwined here. Each chapter is preceded by an epigraph-like short paragraph on its own page, presented in a different font. Woven together, these mini-pages reveal an elliptical story about a wealthy, mythic figure named El Tagi who builds a remarkable palace, the construction of which causes the suffering and death of many others.
The chapters comprise Maryam’s story, who wakes up one day after a violent dream of her own murder, only to find herself in a strange bed in a Cairo apartment, seemingly living a life not her own. Desperate for answers, she seeks out her journalist boyfriend in his office, only to find he doesn’t work there – even his bylines have disappeared from the newspaper. She next rushes to the girls’ hostel where she is convinced she went to bed the night before, where she shared a room with another young woman, only to find all traces of their life together completely vanished.
Moving abruptly from Cairo to an unnamed village, the next chapter begins to unravel Maryam’s past as a descendant of El Tagi. Her childhood was spent in that blood-stained palace, overshadowed by extended family, so many of whom had disturbing personalities and self-complicated lives. Told through disjointed flashbacks, Maryam’s enigmatic past is surely maze-like, populated by both the living and dead, although which is which is not always clear.
“What the woman had said meant she had either lost her memory or her reason. How could time have become so horribly confused?” Maryam asks herself, still unable to distinguish between past and present, dream and reality. Indeed, both Maryam and the reader must work equally hard to construct her multi-layered, uncertain story.
The slim volume is not without memorable, beautifully-rendered passages – about gardens redolent with heady fragrances, fickle young love that begins with air kisses and ends in betrayal, the mourning of lost innocence, and so on. But even in spite of Starkey’s supplemental explanatory notes at novel’s end, Maryam’s Maze ultimately remains lost in translation.
Published: 2007 (United States)