Said Mahran, a petty burglar with pretentions of intellect and justice, has returned from four years in prison to find that the world continues to refuse to meet his idealistic demands. Said sees things not as they are but how he expects they should be, which causes him no end of trouble as his daughter – whom he last saw as a baby – rejects him, his ex-wife has remarried and wants nothing to do with him, and Rauf Ilwan, previously a destitute anarchist author and Said's intellectual mentor, has become rich and famous writing pap for the local newspapers.
Instead of attempting to piece together his life, Said instead transforms himself into a form of justice, declaring that he will kill his enemies until he himself is killed, and nothing more. What life he had was destroyed both from the betrayals he has suffered and his time in prison. Naghib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, has written a tightly-paced and tightly written novel that delves deeply into the mind of an intelligent, articulate man gone terribly astray. The Thief and the Dogs is a powerful work, following the necessary plummet of Said's mind and soul as he jumps headfirst into the abyss.
Following the 1952 Revolution of General Naguib and Colonel Nassar, Egyptian writer Naghib Mahfouz wrote nothing for seven years. During this time, his immensely successful Cairo Trilogy was published in Egypt and translated abroad, cementing his reputation as the preeminent Arabic writer of his generation. In 1959, his work Awlad Haritna was serialized in the daily newspaper Al-Ahram, but the controversy surrounding this work halted the author's pen for another two years. Finally, in 1961, The Thief and the Dogs was published to great acclaim and heralded the beginning of the second phase of Mahfouz's astonishingly productive literary career. The Thief and the Dogs uses stream-of-consciousness techniques whereas before, Mahfouz's work was largely grounded in the realist genre. Additionally, this work marks the beginning of Mahfouz's inclination toward smaller works, culminating in the output of his last few decades, which was comprised almost entirely of short works – fiction, essays and plays.
Said Mahran provides a troubling protagonist to The Thief and the Dogs. He is intelligent and principled, though his principles are unlikely to align with many of the novel's readers. Here is a man who visits his friend from four years ago and expects him to be as much the same as Said himself is – and when he finds this is not true, that the firebrand anarchist writer has given way to the comfortably wealthy newspaper journalist, Said's reaction is one of immediate hostility. He considers that Rauf Ilwan has betrayed not only Said, but also himself and everything he stood for previously. This, Said reckons, is tantamount to treason. He becomes convinced that the shadows are out to get him: 'You, too, want to kill me, to murder your conscience and the past as well. But I won't die before I've killed you: you're the number one traitor.' Said is here acting not as a man but as the 'conscience' of his friend – or so he believes. Again and again, whether the betrayor is his ex-wife, his former friend, or his thieving contacts, Said encourages himself to action by identifying himself as an abstract, and not an individual. In a final burst of controlled madness, Said declares to the world,
'Whoever kills me will be killing the millions. I am the hope and the dream, the redemption of cowards; I am good principles, consolation, the tears that recall the weeper to humility. And the declaration that I'm mad must encompass all who are loving. Examine the cause of this insane occasion, then reach your judgement however you wish!' Completing this metaphysical outlook is the character of the Sheikh, a kindly religious leader who houses Said when he is in trouble, and who speaks in riddles taken from the Koran and other holy writings. The Sheikh acts as a sounding board for Said, listening to his confusions without really saying much beyond truisms or wise sayings. These responses, however, tend to juxtapose neatly with Said's predicament, shedding a spiritual and profound light on the events following Said's release from jail. Toward the end of the novel, Said asks the Sheikh, 'Are you capable of straightening the shadow of something crooked?' The Sheikh, who has harboured Said after he has murdered innocents and robbed former friends, replies only, and sadly, 'I do not concern myself with shadows.' What, then does that make Said?
Mahfouz has written a complex work. The Thief and the Dogs does not do anything easily, nor are the characters drawn by halves. Said is confused, yes, but also intelligent, and his narrative force propels the story as much as the action. Again and again we receive snippets of his life in flashback, written in italics and presented as thoughts from an 'I' that is Said to a 'you' that is – whoever he is thinking about. Said, though he commits evil, is not shown to be evil himself, which makes his character all the more intriguing. How many evil deeds must a misguided young man commit before he is considered evil? At the end of the novel, we have an answer, and it is as unsettling as the writing that proceeded it.
John Rodenbeck's revised edition of Trevor Le Gassick and M. M. Badawi's translation from 1984 has served the text well. Gassick's translation is somewhat outdated due to Mahfouz's passing in 2006, but this is a minor issue and does not detract from the overall quality of the introduction. This novel is short and sharp, but its themes are deep and its courage in tackling difficult questions remain as true today as it did forty years ago when the novel was first published.