Michael Gove is Conservative MP for Surrey Heath, and Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. He is the author of Michael Portillo, The Price of Peace and Celsius 7/7, and writes regularly for The Times. Here he writes about Alaa al-Aswany's The Yacoubian Building.
Michael Gove on The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al-Aswany
How formidable would we have thought communism a generation ago, if we had known that the bestselling books in Brezhnev's Russia had been Animal Farm and 1984?
During the 1980s the Soviet regime maintained an apparatus of repression that ensured that dissident voices were silenced. The idea of a pungent satire of Soviet rule circulating freely in the state-owned bookshops was, literally, inconceivable.
The apparently impermeable façade of Soviet rule led many in the West to assume that, as a system, communism was in robust shape. In 1984 the liberal economist J.K. Galbraith argued that 'the Soviet system has made great material progress in recent years... one sees it in the appearance of wellbeing of the people on the streets... the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.' In 1989 another left-wing American economist, Lester Thurow, maintained that 'today the Soviet Union is a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the US'. Just a few years earlier the distinguished former Kennedy Administration aide Arthur Schlesinger had argued that 'those who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse are wishful thinkers'.
The truth, of course, was that the Soviet Union was collapsing in the 1980s - economically, socially, militarily, morally. It could not supply its people with life's necessities, never mind compete with the West's levels of growth. Its collectivist structures impoverished people, despoiled the environment, crushed freedom. And so, even though its apparatus of repression was formidable, its collapse was inevitable.
Twenty years after communism crumbled, there are still millions of our fellow human beings trapped in regimes that deny their freedom - from Pyongyang to Rangoon, Harare to Havana. But perhaps one of the areas of greatest, and most concentrated, misery is in the Arab world. With the tenuous exceptions of Lebanon and Iraq, where nascent democracies are being undermined by other Arabs, no Arab state is a democracy, or anything like it. And the consequences for the Arab peoples are stark - widespread poverty, economies deprived of innovation and creativity, talent squandered and corruption rampant.
The tragedy of Arab life haunts many hearts but has remained, apparently, insoluble. For those counted wise in the West the state of the Arab world now is like the existence of the Soviet Union in the Eighties - a durable fact that one has to learn to accept. The idea that democracy, or anything like it, can take root in the arid soil of the Middle East is a mirage - and pursuing it will end only in misery, as Iraq's tragedy is proving.
But now new voices are challenging that assumption. A work has recently been produced that lays bare the ugliness of contemporary Egyptian society - the staggering level of business corruption, the ruthlessness with which political power is manipulated by the elites to consolidate their own position, the sexual hypocrisy which stifles genuine freedom and deprives women of basic rights, the crushing of individual initiative and ambition by cronyism and the rise in extremism fuelled directly by the regime's own flagrant defiance of the common good.
The work is not a polemic for a neo-con think-tank but a novel, The Yacoubian Building, by the Egyptian writer Alaa al-Aswany. What makes it remarkable as a work of fiction is the manner in which al-Aswany combines his devastating hatchet job on the current Egyptian regime with a touching and humane narrative that engages the reader as charmingly as Armistead Maupin or Alexander McCall Smith.
All his characterizations enjoy a depth and subtlety that give his indictment of Egyptian society much more force than simple rhetoric. They live on in the imagination long after the reader has laid the novel aside.
Formidable as al-Aswany's artistic achievement may be, what is, in its way, even more remarkable is his commercial success. For The Yacoubian Building is now the best selling novel in Arabic. Across nations which suffer as the Soviet Union once did, an indictment of their rulers every bit as mordant and memorable as Orwell's satire on the Soviet leaders has become the book of the moment.
Perhaps the most sympathetic male character in the novel is an ageing, but generous-hearted, roué called Zaki Bey el-Dessouki. It strikes me as more than just accidental that Zaki Bey, for whom the author clearly has a special affection, is allowed to argue that 'the reason the country's gone downhill is the absence of democracy. Egypt's curse is dictatorship and dictatorship inevitably leads to poverty, corruption and failure in all fields.'
The mood of the moment [March 2007 - NG] in foreign affairs is a reborn realism - we should do business with those regimes that are prepared to work with us and forget about fantasies such as democratization. But the danger of such a course is that we forget about the millions whose suffering only change can assuage - and we become accomplices in a repression as stifling as Soviet rule proved to be. What will we say to a future generation which asks why, if we could understand Orwell's message in the Eighties, we failed to listen to those voices, like al-Aswany's, who cried freedom in our own time?
[All the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, are listed here, here, here and here. This review by Michael Gove first appeared in The Times and is posted here with his permission.]