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'The Automobile Club' Tours Egypt's Troubled History

To find a beginning can be a complicated thing for an author. Not as tough, usually, as finding an end, but it has its own challenges. The blank page, the first line, the headlong entry into a new world populated by nothing more than your imagination? It's intimidating.

In his new novel, The Automobile Club Of Egypt, the beloved, best-selling, award-winning Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany finds an interesting solution. He starts his book three times.

First, there is a kind of meta-beginning — a scene in which a famous author (Aswany himself, you have to assume) has retreated to a secluded house to take a final look through the manuscript of his new novel before sending it out into the world. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door. It's two of the characters from his novel, come to tell him that he has done a poor job of writing their stories and that they've taken the liberty of adding a few things. They provide a copy of the improved manuscript, and then vanish.

End scene.

There follows a second beginning. The story of the invention of the first car, the "horseless carriage," by Karl Benz in Mannheim, Germany in 1885. When the car in unveiled to the public, Karl promptly crashes it. He sinks into depression. Finally, his wife takes the first car and drives it a hundred miles. Everyone is overjoyed. The world is changed.

End scene.

In the third beginning we are in Egypt. In Cairo, where the story picks up, cars have become status symbols for the wealthy and powerful. The titular club, the Automobile Club of Egypt, is founded as a combination DMV and clubhouse for foreigners, the occupying British and the local royalty. Common people are not allowed to become members, only to serve as staff. And even within that staff, there are hierarchies of power and influence.

This — the story of the Club, its members, its staff, their families, the king, his attendants and hangers-on — is the tale we will then follow for the next 400 pages. It is the story of Egypt on the verge of revolution in the 1940's; captured in broad strokes of class warfare and in the minutiae of family life under occupation. It is, for the most part, exceedingly soapy — complete with pimps and spies, dozens of named characters who wander in and out of the narrative, family fortunes squandered, cliffhanging chapters and intimate details on the sex lives of pretty much anyone who has one laid out in giggling detail.

At its center is the Gaafar family and its patriarch, a once-wealthy landowner who has lost his fortune and been forced to take a menial job as an assistant in the stockroom of the Club. When he dies (of shame, it is said, though also of being beaten by the king's cruel valet), two of the family's sons are given jobs at the Club to make up for their father's lost wages. One goes in as a spy for the revolutionaries who want the British out of Egypt. The other becomes a gigolo, servicing the elderly ladies of the club in exchange for British pounds and a life of ease and luxury.

There's also a daughter who is married off to someone who can help her elder brother in the business world (that goes just about as well as you might expect) and more subplots about marital infidelity, sexual dysfunction, grave illness and ballet shoes than I can count — though that last one does come off as one of the sweeter moments in the book, as the broke father of the Gaafar children rushes all over town trying to find an affordable pair of white ballet shoes for his daughter, and the young girl first realizes that things within her family are maybe not as perfect and idyllic as she'd previously believed.

Aswany has the skills to keep all these plots straight, to bend them each just enough to make them intersect without turning them into a tangle. And through the separate-but-interlinked stories of his myriad characters, he does tell a complex story of power and servitude, of the ruling class and the miseries of the ruled. But between the over-done, kinda-meta multiple beginnings (which never come back around) and a slightly clunky translation done by Russell Harris which interrupts the flow of the language, The Automobile Club Of Egypt just never seems able to find the gas pedal. It eventually crosses the finish line, of course, but it does so sputtering rather than racing.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.

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Jason Sheehan