BOOK REVIEW / Modern cures in an antique mould: The journey of Ibn Fattouma - Naguib Mahfouz, Tr. D Johnson-Davies: Doubleday, pounds 13.99

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NAGUIB MAHFOUZ's new novel (new in English, at least) reveals a hitherto little-known facet of his work to the Western reader. It belongs to that category of novels which he wrote intermittently during the last 20 years of his career, where he turned away from the Western mould of the novel into which he had happily poured his vision of life for so long, and instead harked back to indigenous modes of Arabic narrative for inspiration.

He once confided to an interviewer: 'When I started writing novels I used to think that the European form of the novel was sacred. But as you grow older, your outlook changes; you want to free yourself from all that has been imposed on you . . . You find yourself searching for a tune deep down inside yourself . . . As if you were saying - 'Why can't I create a mould of my own?' '

The Journey of Ibn Fattouma is one of several (mostly still awaiting translation) in a mould of his own. Here, Mahfouz looks back to medieval Arabic forms of narrative (both classical and popular) which are episodic in nature and show little or no interest in maintaining a central plot. More particularly, Mahfouz has used a historical model for this fictitious journey - that of Ibn Battuta, the renowned 14th-century Arab traveller, who visited most of the known world of his day and recorded it for posterity in his famous Journey of Ibn Battuta (partly translated into English by H A R Gibb in 1929). That Mahfouz wants us to be aware of the medieval work while reading his novel is amply apparent from its title, if nothing else.

But Mahfouz has approached his historical model with less than a reverent attitude; his intention was partly to parody it. Whereas Ibn Battuta travelled in space, his fictitious descendant travels in time; the five 'lands' he visits being, within the allegorical framework of the book, symbolic of stages in the evolution of organised society from the dawn of history to the present day. In effect, Ibn Fattouma takes us on a conducted tour of the socio-political history of mankind.

Another digression that Mahfouz makes from the historical model lies in Ibn Fattouma's critical attitude towards his own homeland, the 'Land of Islam'; a fact which contradicts Ibn Battuta's tendency to idealise Islam against the other cultures he encountered in his travels. Indeed, the genesis of Ibn Fattouma's journey lies in his disenchantment with the Land of Islam, which he describes as a home for 'injustice, poverty and ignorance', where 'every action, fine or base, is initiated in the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate'. He thus decides to set out on a utopian quest for the ideal social order, and 'to return to my ailing homeland with a remedy to heal her'.

The account that follows is as much about Ibn Fattouma's adventurous journey as it is about Mahfouz's allegorical search for a socio-political formula that would work for his own country, which is at once deeply immersed in tradition and highly attracted by a desire for freedom and modernity.

Ibn Fattouma first journeys to the Land of Mashriq (or Sunrise), which appears to stand for the dawn of human society; being a tribal, pre-agricultural, matriarchal society with a natural religion. Significantly, Ibn Fattouma remarks that his own homeland was morally no superior to this pagan land.

Five years later, he proceeds to the Land of Haira (or Bewilderment), which takes us a few steps further into the development of human society. Here we see feudal lords reigning over their serfs while owing allegiance to a central King who rules by divine right. Again, our traveller records wistfully that there is no evil that he encounters in this journey that has not been surpassed in the Land of Islam.

After 20 years in jail on a false charge, Ibn Fattouma proceeds to the Land of Halba (or Arena): the land of freedom, wealth and sophisticated civilisation. Our traveller, more used to repressive regimes, is stunned to see police protecting, rather than breaking up, anti-government demonstrations. We have obviously arrived in the heartland of Western capitalist democracy. But initial fascination soon gives way to alarm at the rate of poverty and crime and the lack of social compassion - the capitalist system is thus pronounced to be without a 'moral foundation'.

From there he goes to the Land of Aman (or Security), whose people call it the land of 'total justice', where there is neither rich nor poor and no one is without a job. Clearly, we have arrived in the communist state; the latest attempt at organising society. (The novel was written in 1983, before the collapse of communism.) And here admiration is quickly replaced by horror, when Ibn Fattouma learns that in return for 'total justice', 'individual freedom' is punishable by death.

Fleeing from the Land of Aman in disgust, Ibn Fattouma arrives in the Land of Ghuroub (or Sunset), apparently a transitory abode without parallel in the real world, where reclusive, worldweary emigrants from all parts of the world undergo spiritual training to prepare themselves for the final journey to the Land of Gebel (or Mountain).

The Land of Gebel is described throughout the book in idyllic and mysterious terms, and we are told that no traveller has ever arrived there. It appears to be a very heaven on earth - and, suitably, is placed at the summit of a mountain. The novel ends with Ibn Fattouma and his fellow travellers standing at the foot of the daunting mountain looking up to the top that soars among the clouds. Will they reach it? We shall never know, because here the manuscript on which we are told the novel was based stops short.

And this is a very natural ending to the novel. Since the book is an ambitious allegorical journey through historical time, from the dawn of human society to the communist state, it is only fitting that it should stop at the present and leave a question mark over the future.

(Photograph omitted)