Desert Island Books

The books we read claim little parts of our souls. They are what spills out when we're not watching.


Book Excerpt: The Beggar

The ecstasy of love fades and the frenzy of sex is too ephemeral to have any effect. What can we do when we find no food to satisfy our hunger? You’ll be swept into the tornado and annihilated. There is no way to bring back stability after it has died.

A brunette dancer at the New Paris attracted him with her gaiety and lithe body, so he went after her. He saw Margaret on the stage, returned her smile, then invited the brunette to his table. To Margaret it must have seemed a clumsy play in the game of love, but in the storm he’d lost all sense of humor. The brunette left with him, enticed by money. It didn’t really make things better, but he thought his heart stirred slightly as she laughed. If his heart didn’t stir, it would die. Poetry, wine, love – none of them could call forth the elusive ecstasy.

Every night he picked up a woman, from one club or another, sometimes from the streets. At the Capri he sat with a dancer called Muna. Yazbeck rushed over to greet him, exhibiting obvious pleasure. It angered Omar, for he saw it as a kind of death notice of his frustrated hopes.

“My good man. Did….?”

Omar looked at him sternly and left with Muna. As he pressed her to him, he trembled with an unaccountable urge to kill her. He imagined himself ripping open her chest with a knife, and suddenly finding what he’d been looking for all along. Killing is the complement of creation, the completion of the silent, mysterious cycle.

“What’s wrong?” Muna whispered.

He awoke, startled. “Nothing, just the dark.”

“But there’s no one around.”

He raced the car at such a speed that she grasped his arm and threatened to scream. Later, as he was undressing, he felt that the end was coming – the answer to his search – insanity or death. Warda sat on the bed. “I’m going away,” she said.

He answered gently, “I feel responsible for you.”

“I don’t want anything.” After a moment’s silence, she spoke again. “What’s sad is that I’ve really loved you.”

He said wearily, “But you’re not patient with me.”

“My patience is at an end.”

He felt such revulsion toward her in his soul that he didn’t comment.

Finding no trace of her when he returned the next night, he smiled in relief and lay down in his suit on the divan to enjoy the silent, empty flat. Every night he brought a new woman to it.

Mustapha laughed and said, “Hail to the greatest Don Juan on the African continent.”

Omar smiled lamely as Mustapha continued. “It’s no secret anymore. Several of my colleagues have spoken about you. The news has also reached your cronies at the club. They wonder what’s the story behind your rejuvenation.”

He said with distaste, “Honestly, I hate women.”

“That’s obvious!” Then he continued more seriously. “Empty your heart of what’s troubling you so you can settle down, once and for all.”

In the spring it was a relief to sit outdoors in the nightclub gardens, rather than in the closed halls. But the agitation remained, and he was exhausted by his dreams. Occasionally he found solace in reading, especially the poems of India and Persia.

His nighttime adventures took him once more to the Capri. As he sat under the trellis, sipping his drink and receiving the spring breeze, Warda appeared again on the stage. He felt no emotion, surprise, agitation, or pleasure. In autumn it had started. Ecstasy, love, then aversion; when will the grieved heart smash these vicious cycles? When will it break through the barrier of no return? She sees him, then continues dancing, while Yazbeck steals worried glances. He felt no determination. But after the show, noticing Warda not far from him, he invited her to his table. She approached with a smile, as though nothing had happened. He ordered the usual – the drink which had earned him renown in the clubs – and said with sincerity, “I”m really sorry, Warda.”

Smiling enigmatically, she said, “You shouldn’t regret what has passed.” Then gaily: “And the experience of love is precious even if it brings suffering.”

He said, biting his lip, “I’m not well.”

She whispered, “Then let’s pray to God for your recovery.”

He felt the glances of the other women who’d gone with him, night after night. As Warda smiled, he muttered, “I didn’t desire them.”

She raised her eyebrows.

“I know them all, without exception, but there was never any desire.”

“Then why?”

“Hoping the divine moment would unlock the answer.”

She said resentfully, “How cruel you were. You men don’t believe in love unless we disbelieve in it.”

“Perhaps, but that’s not my problem.”

The scent of orange blossoms drifting from the dark fields suggested secret worlds of delight. Feeling suddenly light and unfettered, he asked her fervently, “Tell me, Warda, why do you live?”

She shrugged her shoulders and finished her drink, but when he repeated the question, he was so clearly in earnest that she replied, “Does that question have any meaning?”

“It doesn’t hurt to ask it once in a while.”

“I live, that’s all.”

“I’m waiting for a better answer.”

She thought a moment, then said, “I love to dance, and to be admired, and I hope to find true love.”

“To you, then, life means love.”

“Why not?”

“After loving once, weren’t you disillusioned?”

She said with annoyance, “That may be true of others.”

“And as for you?”

“No.”

“How many times have you loved?”

“I told you once…”

He interrupted her. “What you told me once doesn’t matter; let’s discuss things openly now.”

“Your violent nature is getting the better of you.”

“Don’t you want to talk?”

“I’ve said all that I…”

He sighed, then continued feverishly. “And God, what do you think of Him?”

She looked at him distrustfully, but he entreated, “Please answer me, Warda.”

“I believe in Him.”

“With certainty?”

“Of course.”

“How does such certainty arise?”

“It exists, that’s all.”

“Do you think about HIm often?”

Her laugh was a bit forced. “When in need or adversity.”

“And other than that?”

She said sharply, “You love to torture others, don’t you?”

He stayed in the club till 3 a.m. and then raced out in the car to the Pyramids Road. Going out alone that night, he reflected, was an interesting development. He parked the car along the side of the deserted road and got out. The darkness, unrelieved by ground lights, was peculiarly dense, unlike any night he could remember. The earth and space itself seemed to have disappeared and he was lost in blackness. Raising his head to the gigantic dome overhead, he was assaulted by thousands of stars, alone, in clusters, and in constellations. A gentle breeze blew, dry and refreshing, harmonizing the parts of the universe. The desert sands, clothed in darkness, hid the whispers, as numberless as the grains, of past generations – their hopes, their suffering, and all their lost questions. There’s no pain without cause, something told him, and somewhere this enchanted, ephemeral moment will endure. Here I am, beseeching the silence to utter, for if that happened, all would change. If only the sands would loosen their hidden powers, and liberate me from this oppressive impotence. What prevents me from shouting, knowing that no echo will reverberate? He leaned against the car and gazed for a long time at the horizon. Slowly it changed as the darkness relented and a line appeared, diffusing a strange luminosity like a fragrance or a secret. Then it grew more pronounced, sending forth waves of light and splendor. His heart danced with an intoxicated joy, and his fears and miseries were swept away. His eyes seemed drawn out of their very sockets by the marvelous light, but he kept is head raised with unyielding determination. A delirious, entrancing happiness overwhelmed him, a dance of joy which embraced all earth’s creatures. All his limbs were alive, all his senses intoxicated. Doubts, fears, and hardships were buried. He was shadowed by a strange, heavy certitude, one of peace and contentment, and a sense of confidence, never felt before, that he would achieve what he wanted. But he was raised above all desire, the earth fell beneath him like a handful of dust, and he wanted nothing. I don’t ask for health, peace, security, glory, or old age. Let the end come now, for this is my best moment.

The delirium had left him panting, his body twisted crazily toward the horizon. He took a deep breath, as if trying to regain his strength after a stiff race, and felt a creeping sensation from afar, from the depths of his being, pulling him earthward. He tried to fight it, or delay it, but in vain. It was as deep-rooted as fate, as sly as a fox, as ironic as death. He revived with a sigh to the waves of sadness and the laughing lights.

He returned to the car and drove off. Looking at the road dispiritedly, he said, as if addressing someone else, “This is ecstasy.” He paused before continuing. “Certainly, without argumentation or logic.” Then in a more forceful voice: “Breaths of the unknown, whispers of the secret.” Accelerating the car, he asked, “Isn’t it worth giving up everything for its sake?”

The Beggar by Naguib Mafouz

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The Beggar
is available from Amazon.com


My Desert Island Books

Here are some Desert Island Books:

No.

Title

Author

01 The Bible
02 The Heart of the Matter Graham Greene
03 The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway
04 Samson Agonistes John Milton
05 Martin Eden Jack London
06 The Beggar Naguib Mahfouz
07 100 Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez
08 Dune Frank Herbert
09 Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis
10 The Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien

Desert Island Authors

There are certain authors that strike a chord with me. Their works have probably formed my world view as much as anything, other than my faith. Strangely, only three from this list are Americans. Is that because I am drawn to things other than what I already know? Perhaps that sort of sedentary wanderlust has informed my taste in literature, but regardless, I would be perfectly happy with works from any of these authors on my desert island.

Graham Greene
Ernest Hemingway
Jack London
Joseph Conrad
C. S. Lewis
Gabriel Garcia-Marquez
J.R.R. Tolkein
Naguib Mafouz
Milan Kundera
Paul Theroux


See more Desert Island Books & Book Excerpts HERE.

What are your ten must-have volumes? Email your Desert Island Books to pbwomack@mywastedspace.com