Leading article: Simple greatness

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The Independent Online

It is perhaps fitting that the centenary of the birth of the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich should witness the death of a great Egyptian novelist, Naguib Mahfouz. Like Shostakovich, Mahfouz chose to stay at home, despite the constant threat of political censorship and the more recent assassination attempt by Islamic fundamentalists. Like Shostakovich, too, Mahfouz came to be viewed, against his will, as an artist of his place and a voice of his time.

The fact that he was the only Arab author to gain a Nobel Prize for Literature says more about the committee than his solitariness. He was not a lone talent in the Middle East, or even Egypt. But he was a dominating figure for much of the past 60 years. His development of the realistic novel in his earlier works about Cairo life, and his later adoption of a more fantastical and mystical-style, profoundly influenced three generations of Arab writers, as well as giving birth to a host of characters taken up by Arab film and TV.

It was the fanciful style that got him into trouble with the Islamic authorities, objecting to his portrayal of God in one book, while his realistic novels brought him criticism from politicians resentful of his portrayal of General Nasser's authoritarian rule.

Although he spoke out in favour of peace with Israel and freedom at home, he could never really be pinned down by those who wanted to make him a martyr or an example for his political age. He was, above all, what he always described himself as - "a simple writer of stories". As with Shostakovich, it will take time to fully absorb the range of Mahfouz's 40-odd books. But his is a reputation that will only grow in that process.

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