Candygirl: An Egyptian Novel (Modern Arabic Literature) Paperbackby M.M. Tawfik (Author, Translator)
American University in Cairo Press 2013 - 240 pages
Reviewed by M.A.Orthofer - Complete ReviewFurther Reading
M M Tawfik Bio
candygirl - the book website
candygirl is set in early 2007. The main character is a fifty-two year-old Egyptian scientist, "the world's foremost expert on reinforced structures", whose work history includes an unfortunate longer stint in Saddam Hussein's nuclear program in Iraq. Known as 'the Cerebellum', Dr.Mustafa Mahmud Korany is a wanted man, and for several years now he has tried very, very hard to disappear; when the book opens he closes his bank account -- his last official record in the system -- and hopes finally "to drop under the American radar forever".
The American radar is, in fact, hot on his heels: directed from the isolated and ultra-covert COBRA Center in Charlotte, North Carolina by two agents called Alpha and Gamma (Beta up and left a month earlier) the hunt for 'Mickey Mouse' (so the Cerebellum's code name in their operation) has been on for a while, and when he goes to the bank they pick up his trail again -- realizing also that: "This is our last chance." With the most advanced surveillance technology, as well as operation teams from other American agencies on the ground in Cairo, Alpha and Gamma can now again track and take out the Cerebellum from the comfort of their distant bunker -- or so they hope. Bustling Cairo is not the easiest environment to operate in, however, and they're apparently not the only ones who have an interest in the Cerebellum. When the scientist manages to stumble into a completely separate shake-down attempt -- lovely small-time actress Didi gets kidnapped, and he gets taken for a ride -- things get even more complicated for all concerned.
The Cerebellum manages to evade the initial American hit attempt, and returns to his lair, a slum he's been living in for five years. A busy hive of activity, and near the 'official' world, it is nevertheless an oasis of anonymity:
Here, to be precise, you find yourself in a parallel world, outside the official course of history, denoted by neither shape nort color on the map of the world.
While the Cerebellum tries to live as anonymously and off-the-beaten-track as possible, he doesn't entirely live off the grid. Among his few indulgences is yet another parallel life in virtual reality, where he is a professional boxer calling himself 'biceps'. He retreats here because he can be with the one person who means anything to him: candygirl.
Much like the Cerebellum, Martin -- Agent Gamma -- lives in a bubble separated from the real world. He has a wife and child, but now that Beta split his shift in the 'Ghost Center' is twelve hours daily, seven days a week, and he barely sees them. He has little contact with the outside world except via the computer, in distant Egypt, where he controls the anonymous people at his disposal like in some video game. He and Alpha don't even know how covert what they're doing is, and how far beyond legal: there's practically no contact with their superiors, either.
Both the Cerebellum and Martin are increasingly isolated individuals, separated from anything like family, and for each the substitute reality of their computer worlds increasingly dominates their lives; not surprisingly, their virtual (and real) worlds come to overlap.
The Cerebellum does interact with some of the others from the building and neighborhood he is hiding in, and makes the acquaintance of a mathematically gifted young student (who comes to him looking for advice about his poetry), but he's not a man given to much intimacy. He's apparently never even held a girl's hand -- and he worries that candygirl will at some point ask for something more than the exchanges of text that they engage in (like asking to see an actual photograph or to videochat ...). He's far more comfortable with the layers that separate him from candygirl -- and prefers to focus on and think of her as only that online-persona, rather than any person who might be behind her. Meanwhile, however, he does have a real-life damsel in distress -- Didi -- to try to save.
All this makes for a busy novel, in which Tawfik juggles several bigger issues, in a mix of philosophical and action thriller. There are a variety of existential questions presented here -- across both cultures and technologies --, and Tawfik plays with them quite well; with its back and forth between Egypt and the United States it also feels entirely appropriate that the author himself translated the book from the original Arabic.
Complete with it's own official site (and a QR code printed in the book along with the URL to help you find it), candygirl is entirely contemporary in presentation and content, a modern novel that happens to be Egyptian. Still, it's neither your usual action thriller, nor a typical philosophical one. With a great deal left unexplored -- there are only hints of the Cerebellum's earlier life (and essentially nothing about his Iraqi adventures), for example, and the brilliant young student is little more than a figure that conveniently pops up to allow some modestly clever repartee, to name only some obvious examples -- the novel feels a bit underdeveloped; still, Tawfik does manage to do quite a bit here, and he often does it quite well. If not entirely successful, it's certainly of interest -- and while the American half is even less developed than the Egyptian one, it is the rare contemporary novel in which both cultures are reasonably convincingly presented.