The Republic of False Truths (book review)


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Alaa Al Aswany’s new novel explores the turbulence, personal and political, of Egypt’s 2011 revolution and its aftermath.

“Most Egyptians have no idea how to think for themselves. The Egyptian people is like a child: if you leave it to decide for itself, it will do itself harm.” So speaks General Ahmad Alwany in the Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany’s The Republic of False Truths. It is 2011 and the revolution has begun: the people have finally decided for themselves. Egyptians from different backgrounds have gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to peacefully demonstrate against government corruption and police brutality, in an uprising which ultimately led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power. The Republic of False Truths captures the uneasy emotions of a society mid-change: the idealism of youth, the ambivalence of the majority, and the machinations of the powers-that-be.

The novel begins as Alwany awakens to the dawn prayer. “He’d lie on his back in bed, eyes open, repeating the words of the call in a whisper.” While a faultlessly observant Muslim – teetotal, married, charitable – he allows himself certain pleasures: luxurious breakfasts, expensive clothing and adult entertainment. “Some might ask, ‘How could a God-fearing Muslim like General Alwany watch pornographic films?”’ the narrator poses, sarcastically.

Far worse is what Alwany allows in support of the regime. From the mosque, he heads straight to a darkened room where he leads in the torture of a young dissident. Al Aswany’s main target is religious hypocrisy, and the sheen of rectitude it gives to the unscrupulous. The novel supplies a cast of contemptible graspers. Sheikh Shamel, the fraudulent host of the Godliness Channel, and Nourhan, his exploitative co-host, are the two most obvious hucksters – but also under fire are the petty-minded wives and businessmen with interests to protect.

A large part of the heat generated by this impassioned novel comes from the friction of cross-generational conflict. Alwany’s beloved daughter Danya becomes involved in the protests through her relationship with the lower class Khaled. Many pay the price for reaching out a hand in friendship, as the aristocratic character Ashraf observes: “In Egypt, a person inherits his circumstances and it’s very difficult for him to change them.” The revolution marks a wilful change, a levelling of societal barriers.

The Republic of False Truths contains multiple love stories. Sadly, when the romantic mood takes him Aswany rather lets himself down. Meaningful relationships we are meant to invest in are expressed in bland exposition or overripe sentiment: “Ikram pouted her delectable lips…She had now become unbearably sexy.” There is a persistent lustfulness which often veers into crudity. This could, in part, be down to the translation, which is often flat and limited with certain phrases appearing all too regularly (“Silence reigned” is a great favourite).

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