"The Journey of Ibn Fattouma" is a book by Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, published in Arabic in 1983 and in English in 1992. It is a relatively short book, around 150 pages, describing the journeys of Ibn Fattouma, an allegorical character in an allegorical world.
Life and death, dreaming and wakefulness: stations for the perplexed soul.
This is a great opener, and it prepares the reader for what is ahead. But not totally: during the first chapter, I was unsure whether this book would resolve into a historical novel. It describes the upbringing of Ibn Fattouma, the son of a second wife to a wealthy merchant. Ibn Fattouma grows up studying Islam and seeks a marriage with a woman he is in love with, but when she is married off to a powerful man, he decides to go on a journey to the far countries, to find peace and meaning.
Sometime in the second chapter, telling of his journey to the first country, it becomes clear that this book is not meant to reflect any specific time or place, or be a socially realistic treatment of Egyptian life. Ibn Fattouma is described as only coming from "The Lands of Islam", and the countries he visits in each subsequent chapter reflect a different type of social organization: prehistoric civilization, medieval empires, Western democracy, and (Soviet) communism. In other words, this book is somewhat akin to Gulliver's Travels or Candide: a picaresque adventure novel where fantastical countries are used to comment on society. Unlike those works, however, the countries are described in a more realistic way. Along the way, Ibn Fattouma is married twice, loses his wife, gets caught in wars, gets thrown in prison, and tries to find both inner and outer peace. Along the way, when he questions representatives of the various societies about the injustice in their own society, they merely respond "and isn't it the same in yours?" The message is put forward in a rather plain fashion.
I enjoyed this book for several reasons. As an allegory, it was easier to follow than a realistic novel: there are minimal characters, and they are usually described in broad, symbolic strokes. The chapters are short, and clear. I read this book quickly, and could understand on a surface level what was going on. But while reading, I was unclear about one thing, and that was the question of authorial intent. I knew little about the author before beginning this book, other than that he was Egyptian, and is to date the only Arabic language writer to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. When reading this book, I was wondering at what level of dramatic irony the book was presenting. Basically, whether Ibn Fattouma's continuing defense of the basic religious and social values of his upbringing was meant to reflect the writer's own views, or if it was rather like Voltaire's parody of Doctor Pangloss, where these words were inserted in the character's mouth for the purpose of authorial scorn. When reading this book, my general feeling that Mahfouz, like Fattouma, was generally a reformer, someone who wished to gently correct the hypocrisies of their own society, while accepting its general truths.
A little bit of cursory research, after finishing the book, revealed that this impression might have been incorrect. Although not an apostate, during his long life, Mahfouz' political and religious beliefs put him on the wrong side of authorities more often than not, and he was indeed the victim of an assassionation attempt in 1994 by an Islamic fundamentalist that left him disabled for the rest of his life. So I would guess that what seems to be the work's gentle criticism was more a tactic of literal self-preservation, given the climate it was written in. Sometimes, a book can be appreciated more knowing authorial intent and authorial history.