The Egyptian Heinrich.. A 150 Year Old Journey

By Mahmoud Abdelshakoor

Written by Swiss novelist Markus Werner (1944-2016) and published in Arabic translation by Sphinx Agency, this novella takes us on an incredible journey across time and space.

The Egyptian Heinrich, translated by Iman Nafei and Khaled Tobar, does not exceed 240 pages in small format, yet it tells the story of a journey between Switzerland, France, Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Ismailiyya, Zaqaziq, Tanta and Kafr Elzayyat. This journey takes 150 years in the life of the Swiss adventurer Heinrich Blonchelli and in the lives of several generations of his family. This depth in time and space – in spite of the short format of the novel – reveals the skill of its author who wrote it in 1999.

Another clever aspect in Markus Werner’s writing is that he actually narrates two parallel journeys: one is the journey of the grandfather Heinrich Blonchelli who came to Egypt during the era of Khedive Ismail, met Ferdinand De Lesseps, and attended the inauguration of Canal Suez, then died in 1901 after a busy life in the fields of industry and governmental departments. The other is the equally important journey of the grandson who tells us the story of following the traces of his grandfather whether in Egypt or Zurich. At the end it seems to us as if the grandson is repeating the journey of the grandfather, although the grandson’s journey is one of knowledge and exploration while the grandfather’s journey was one of trade and fortune seeking. The two journeys end with the grandson having discovered some of the facts and some of the lies that he had heard, while confirming that the grandfather’s journey did not realize fortune for him although it had made an adventurer of him till the end. May be it is this fact that makes the grandson, unlike the grandfather, less afraid of the future. It is a journey of double enlightenment and parallel discoveries for the grandfather and the grandson. The two journeys tour in two different directions: Switzerland in the old times and Egypt in 1990s. In both cases the narrator sets out freely, he describes and comments, he tries to filter the right from the wrong, he wants to teach and to learn, he wants to bring back bygone eras and to discover the long history of his family.