A tale of two scribblers

Dan Perry
6 min readMay 4, 2024

Garcia Marquez and Aswany were both betrayed, in a way

I recognized Alaa Aswany across the rooftop at Cairo’s Garden City Club, across a smoky haze. I’d consumed my share of whiskey, but to fortify poured another. I rarely meet authors I love, you see, as mostly they’re long dead. Yet here this one was alive.

I’ll happily engage with almost anyone in a dive bar, but with literature I am a snob. My shelves creak under the weight of the classics, and newer works tend to bore me. I sense that we ran out of literary elements about 50 years ago and now suffice with pale composites. I’m not so proud of this critique; it just seems simply, sadly so.


I dislike the fashion against experts and will not indulge it — so when traveling I ask an expert: What’s the one thing I should read about this place? On Haiti, the person replied: “The Comedians by Graham Greene. He was not Haitian, it is true, but this is the book to read.” I adored this chronicle of Caribbean skullduggery, mentioned it in a story, and proceeded to read everything Greene had ever penned. Few are the finer pastimes.

Arriving in Cairo in 2011 for the AP, I was advised to read The Yacoubian Building by Aswany. The tale gripped me as expected: my advisor was an expert. And while the troubles of 1970s shoe-shiners and shirt-makers are interesting, what I truly loved was a series of skillfully deployed devices.

First, the passage of time: Fear of death is the great equalizer. A story that tracks a person through learning or to decrepitude will certainly stir the soul. Also, interwoven narratives: Every person we meet has the potential to alter our future. Multiple narratives can be a cheap device, but in the hands of a master they mesmerize. No less important, if a writer can summon up sex without vulgarity, here is the ultimate frisson. And random absurdities are delightful, for there is no real rhyme or reason.

Aswany had all these covered and so I read his second novel Chicago and a book of stories as well. In 2015 his new novel arrived. I posted on Facebook: “I am finding The Automobile Club of Egypt almost impossible to put down, as evidenced by the late hour.”

Four days later I found myself marching across the rooftop of the Garden City Club.

“Dr. Aswany,” I said. He shot up from his seat. “Yes, hello.”

“This book you have just written gave me immense joy, as all your books have done,” I said, with less than total journalistic dispassion. “Please just keep them coming, and know you have a fan.” I prepared to go, but Aswany affably insisted: “You will join us at the table.” Decorum required me to hesitate even a little, perhaps protest. But, the whiskey.

The conversation at the table thus was forced to move to English, which the assembled accepted with practiced grace. At this point my own grace took its leave, I’m sad to say. I reverted without warning to journalistic type.

This thing was this: I had heard a rumor — Cairo swirls with every conceivable rumor — that the books of Aswany, a dentist, were in fact ghostwritten by his wife. She is a devout Muslim who must shun all earthly fame to satisfy the prophet and the patriarchy, or some such thing. Again, it is the whiskey that made me test this odd hypothesis with a literary celebrity who had just invited me to crash his party.


“Dr. Aswany, if I may: What are literary influences from which you glean inspiration for your work?” He novelist-dentist replied: “Oh, the influences are many, each sublime in its own way. But for me, ultimately, it is the Latin American school that moves the spirit.”

“Is any particular author your favorite?” I insisted. “In theory there are many, but in reality, as you must know, it can only be Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” he replied, his affability intact. “Naturally,” he added, calmly surveying the others.

“Which of his books?”

There was a moment of silence. I remember a police siren audible in the distance. Aswany considered me as one does, I believe, a tax inspector. It may be my memory playing tricks, or perhaps the suffocating smoke, but I think his eyes narrowed just a tad. “Perhaps you would expect me to nominate One Hundred Years of Solitude, my friend. Or Chronicle of a Death Foretold. But I will surprise you. For me, the most evocative of his works is Love in the Time of Cholera.”

Indeed! A 1985 story of the love of two men for the same woman. Certainly this was good enough for me. As the effects of the whiskey began to fade, I regretted the interrogation. Aswany warmly pressed his business card into my hand. I vowed to myself never to abuse this, but soon betrayed this vow.

Needing an idealistic voice for an article I was writing about the wreckage of the Arab Spring, I called him up and he happily obliged. “What do you say to those who argue the regional catastrophe shows Arabs are not ready for democracy,” I asked, and he supplied the perfect quote: “The idea that some people are not prepared for justice is racist. It reflects a lack of respect for people. I absolutely disagree with it.”

I neglected to add was that I was calling from the Brown Hotel in Tel Aviv. In retrospect, that may not have been so sporting, since he dislikes Israel rather firmly. In retrospect, I am not at all certain that I offered Aswany the best side of me. But I digress.


These memories came rushing back at a wonderful bookstore in South Kensington, as I found myself beholding a new posthumous release from Garcia Marquez. Words can hardly describe my joy at the fact that the children of the Colombian Nobel laureate, who died in 2014, had violated his wish that this novella — Until August in English — not be published.

“We did not destroy it, but we did set it aside, in the hope that time would decide what to do with it,” they write in the foreword. “Reading it again almost ten years after his death, we discovered that the text contained a great many wonderful achievements. In an act of betrayal, we decided to put his readers’ pleasure ahead of all other considerations.”

Let us not be so gauche as to speculate on the possible range of considerations.

Garcia Marquez

Garcia Marquez was indeed a master of interlocking narratives, and a connoisseur of the ravages of time. Aswany does his best to evoke “magic realism,” but his mentor was probably the best.

I love the final lines from One Hundred Years of Solitude, as the character Aureliano Buendía reads parchments left behind by an enigmatic gypsy which contain the entire history of his family, documenting their cyclical fate. As he reads, he “had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city … would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when (he) would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more…”

Until August turns out to be a more accessible affair, as it were. Ana Magdelina Bach has been faithful to her husband until almost the age of fifty, when circumstances emerge, on a mysterious Caribbean island, that compel a change of heart. This being Garcia Marquez, the story goes elsewhere than one might imagine. It involves a bag of bones, which may be real and may be not.

It is possible, as some uncharitable reviews have suggested, that the simpler approach stems from the Colombian great having lost a step. I choose to accept that what he lost was his patience for not getting to the point. And in any case, as I put down the book, I realized that this story, as well, was about the same strange motif — Stefan Zweig’s “burning secret” that itself “would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men … unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more.”

It may not be the great man’s best, but I am glad the potentiall scheming progeny ignored his wishes. You could endure a hundred years of multitude and never encounter the like. Such value cannot be foretold. I’m sure Aswany would agree.



Dan Perry

Journalist and comms professional who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Author of Israel & the Quest for Permanence.