Trying to Pinpoint the Dissatisfaction

Are you familiar with the frustration of attempting to describe something that doesn’t quite sit right, or achieve its goal, but which does(n’t) so without including any glaring beacons of wrongness that help point out specific areas of failure?

Source: Lilian Wagdy via Wikimedia Commons.

Such is the result of trying to analyze Alaa Al-Aswany’s Chicago, which portrays a number of Egyptian immigrants, new and old, to the Windy City. It’s an easy read, and the characters do get into situations and experience emotional and practical dilemmas that are interesting in themselves– but there’s just something missing here. I’m guessing there’s more to it than things getting lost in translation into English; sure, the fact that the dialogue placed in American characters’ mouths is just too stilted/formal and old-fashioned to sound believably native could have something to do with translation. But the additional fact that the story sometimes moves in a manner that makes you think the author equates good storytelling and style to simply getting the characters from one plot point to the next is probably as obvious in Arabic as it is in English.

It’s a noble attempt at portraying the complexities of immigrant life; the knotty realities of corruption, power, religion, and culture; and the heterogeneity of one nation’s strivers and seekers. In the end, though, it just doesn’t hold up as solid fiction, maybe because the author ventured outside of what he knew well enough to create a really robust tale, and may have been overconfident about his grasp of Chicagoan/American culture.

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