In this landscape of broken dreams where hope still clings, Fin tries to claw his way back to the surface after a bout of drunkenness and a barroom brawl with an American who holds some kind of dubious office at the U.S. embassy. An Irish ex-journalist who was once a senior reporter for the
Cairo Herald (his only recent claim to fame is an article on the best kebab shops in the heart of Cairo), Fin battles his addictions while never losing
his ability for keen observations on life and his nose for a good news story.
Having lost his job, Fin
casts about for something else - or somebody onto whom he can project his
shattered dreams. A phone call from his Egyptian friend Farouk helps Fin overcome the urge for self-pity, Farouk
showing him that Cairo is indeed an exotic plate of possibilities where
deliverance is perhaps waits just around the corner.
When Farouk’s friendly taxi driver arrives at Fin’s door, providing an invitation to partake in mint tea at Farouk’s home in Mena Village - a chaotic row of houses and stables that circle the Giza Sphinx and the pyramid complex - Fin jumps at the chance, especially when Farouk offers to tell him a strange and compelling story about Skinhead Said and how Said’s cellar once collapsed.
The two men sit at a sidewalk café sipping mint tea, Fin desperate to hear the rest of the tale: “it didn’t have to be a burning bush of truth, just an impression of wise direction.” Both, however are frozen in a deluge of outrage and terror when Omar Balesh, a local street thug, suddenly attacks Farouk then abducts and assaults them. Accusing Farouk of
having run over his baby daughter and breaking her leg, Balesh unleashes a seething caldron of hatred, determined that Farouk should pay the price for what he has done to his little girl.
Here author Rowan Somerville’s narrative becomes a story of redemption as Fin, finally released by Balesh,
races against time to prove Farouk’s innocence. He shudders to think what might happen to Farouk,
whom he left with arms bound by wire, and he’s terrified that his frail anatomy will receive the full force of Balesh’s hate. Ironically though, it is the sense of chaos and desperation that makes Fin feel so at home and prepares him for many of the challenges he faces.
As Fin surfaces from the filthy Nile after being thrown in by Balesh, his clothes suffused in a slime of decomposed rubbish and polluted mud, he finds it hard to believe that Farouk has committed such a crime. Eventually stumbling through the narrow alleys of Cairo with self-enforced desperation, Fin remains positive that someone other than Farouk knocked over the little girl.
A man with too few friends and no contacts on the local police force, all Fin can do is determine Farouk’s innocence
then hopefully convince Omar that his draconian punishments are misdirected. Somverville’s intense and poetic writing style races along, bleeding with kaleidoscopic images of Cairo, a city of filth, of chaos and ruins
teeming with people who are ebullient, enveloped in the past yet built on the fragments and wreckage
- and on the debris of other worlds, other religions and other dreams, where “everything is either half built or half demolished.”
Cairo seems to leak into Fin’s psyche even as he’s simultaneously held fast, then repelled,
and eventually mesmerized by this vast metropolis. In a corrupt city swarming with bent police, unprincipled newspaper editors, American thugs, and child-hurting hypocrites, Finn comes to realize how insignificant and flawed he actually is.
Although Somerville’s fast-paced narrative loses a bit of steam in the final third, this psychedelic novel mostly works for showing how history can be woven out of the tiny threads of one life, and how the heroic stoicism of one journalist can work to defend the truth.
Part of Fin’s journey is the recognition that he, too, will one day decay and crumble, just like this massive city that he so loves and sometimes hates.
The noise of the city bursts in Fin’s head with the desperate urgency to find or do something to help Farouk, even as he
is spiritually drawn to the great desert just out side of Cairo, its remains empty and vast and still, the remnants of history and the chaotic memories of an ancient civilization forever embedded in his soul.