Monday, February 13, 2012

Book Review: The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal

The Golden Scales could be read as a melancholy song for Cairo. The author, using a simple case of a disappearance, or maybe abduction, for his starting point, he travels the reader back in time and he show-lights to him the everyday life of the Egyptian capital. He does that in a somewhat light way, using a sense of humor that borders to irony, but that’s not enough to hide the reality; a reality that’s as bleak as the lives of the poor people in the country.
     So, he talks about dirty cops and corrupted state officials, who have a lot of close ties with the rich the powerful, about the new dirty money that has been laundered in the country for the sake of some questionable characters from the former Soviet Union, and which allows certain people to make or to follow their own rules, about the city poor whose lives get from bad to worse, about the rich that reside in huge fortress-like houses, choosing to ignore all the suffering in the streets, and about the fear and the darkness that surrounds the local show biz, the sex and the drugs trade.
     This novel reminds me of a crime story and a social commentary at the same time, and it’s just as well that it does, if I may add. The epicenter of the plot is not so much the crime, as is the society in which it took place. A society, that back then, in 1998, was just as divided as it is now.
     It all begins when some bodyguards of sorts, arrive at the boat where Makana, an ex-cop from the Sudan and now refugee lives. The men simply state to him that he has to follow them because their boss wants to meet him, and he just obeys, since he knows too well that he has no word in the matter anyway. As he’ll soon come to find out, the boss is none other than Saad Hanafi, a man rumored to be so rich as to own the biggest part of the aristocratic suburb of Heliopolis. Makana knows Hanafi is one of those men that “sell dreams”, one of which is his football team, the most popular in Egypt. Now he wants him, of all people, to discover the whereabouts of Adil Romario, the biggest star of the team, who’s gone missing ten days ago. Makana, though reluctantly, accepts the mission, since he could really use some money right now, and of that his new employer has aplenty.
     Thus he starts his investigation; an investigation that will bring him time and again face to face with danger, but which will also lead him into some of the most infamous streets of the city, into dens and into luxurious establishments, and that will also make him realize that the people who really cared about Romario were but a few; most of the ones who knew him actually were not that hurt that he was gone. As the case will start getting more and more complicated and the good detective will find himself moving from one dead end to the next, something else will happen that will complicate things even more; he’ll meet a woman from England, who’s been searching for the last seventeen years for her missing daughter and who’ll soon end up dead, murdered perhaps by the very same man who took her child. But who would that be? That’s the big question that Makana sets himself to find the answer to.
     This is a very good crime novel, written in a nice straightforward manner, and which travels the reader to some places that look familiar and strange at the same time. The author seems not only to pen the psychological profiles of his characters, but of a whole city as well. And he talks about that city’s essence, the one which as foreigners to its culture, we are by ourselves unable to see. A job well done.

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