Morning and Evening Talk is a novel (of sorts) about Egypt, stretching from the late 1700s to the 1980s. It follows three different families that live within Cairo, chronicling their lives through five generations. These three families are related, their histories intertwined.
One must ask, then, how can Mahfouz cover so much time in such a short book? After all, Morning and Evening Talk is fewer than 200 pages. The answer to that is that the book isnít really a novel at all; instead, it is a series of biographical entries. It reads almost like an encyclopedia, briefly chronicling an entire life within a page or two, and it is organized in alphabetical order. As a result, it is completely disjointed, making it difficult to maintain the illusion of any type of storyline. The reader reads biography after biography, vaguely recalling names from previous entries. The fact that many people have the same or similar names makes it that much more confusing. As a result, itís difficult to keep track of what is going on without taking notes on each character, which makes the book an extremely frustrating read.
According to the translatorís note, Mahfouz used the character sketches as a device to remind the reader of medieval Arabic texts in which entire lives were boiled down to a few sentences. If this is indeed the case, then Mahfouz achieved his purpose. Though there is little emotion involved in these entries, the author manages to portray changes in Egyptian society and culture over this span of time effectively. Itís a social commentary just as much as it is a history.
One thing that would be useful to have before reading Morning and Evening Talk is a firm grasp of Egyptian history. Mahfouz often refers to events in Egyptian history Ė itís one of the few ways the reader knows when the person they are reading about lived. Though there is a glossary in the back of the book which includes major Egyptian events, itís helpful to have a working knowledge of Egyptís past before embarking on the journey that is Morning and Evening Talk.
While Morning and Evening Talk is definitely an interesting and unique look at Egyptian history and social customs, itís better to have read at least one of Mahfouzís other books before this one. Other books by Mahfouz would likely give a reader a greater appreciation of this, his final work before his death. While well-written with interesting insight into Egyptian culture, this book is a tedious read unless you are interested in experimental types of literature.