This novel is a little over 600 pages long, and has taken me several years to read. I had a particularly long pause around page 400, because I didn’t feel at the time I had much interest in going on; and yet large parts of it had been interesting. So this is my essential issue with the novel: that there are some passages in it which are quite dull.
The novel is about the effect of the arrival of western oil interests in Saudi Arabia, particularly on the traditional lifestyles of the people, who are dragged out of a centuries-old culture in order to work in the uncomfortable conditions of the new oil towns, laying pipelines etc (I suppose we may think of the Qatar World Cup here), and the connivance of the authorities – and the lack of care for their own people shown – in this destruction of culture. This tearing apart of tradition and the effect this has on the people, along with the culture-clash experienced by these people as they discover a world out there thoroughly unlike their own, are the best parts of the book. The sultan’s fascination for his new telescope – and later his radio – was the particular passage which drew me back in to completing the novel. One gains an insight (if one hasn’t already) why these people might be aggrieved towards the west, towards capitalism, towards their own rulers; and, of course, why Munif’s books are banned in Saudi Arabia.
The book starts off by following a small cast of people, but as it goes along it begins to drift – those earlier people become forgotten, and it starts to interest itself in the lives of other people. The focus is more the unfolding of history, or the history of a community. Cafe-owners persist, while other people come and go. All of which is quite reminiscent of, say, Ivo Andric’s The Bridge of the Drina (and perhaps also another book we are reading at the moment, Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone).
Cities of Salt is part of a quintet (referred to as a trilogy in English – I suspect because no one has translated the last two books). I wasn’t so interested in going on (I have the next book, The Tunnel, which is also – I think – about 600 pages long), but actually reading about it on Amazon, the set doesn’t follow a cronological sequence – The Tunnel doesn’t follow on from Cities of Salt – but they each deal with a different aspect of Saudi Arabian history; which suddenly makes me more interested in going forward. But I think I might read a few shorter Arabic books first.