The novel is set in Cairo, but at this stage we are given just glimpses of the place and culture. It is a city of “streets belaboured by the sun, careening cars, crowds of people moving or still…” (p.151), where “the wheels of streetcar growl and shriek like abuse.”(p.153). It contains “great mosques and, beyond them, the Citadel…” (p.153)
This chapter introduces us to several themes which might be explored and developed later in the novel. Here they are listed, with one or two brief comments.
Betrayal and treachery – help to drive the narrative as Said is motivated by the desire for revenge on those who have betrayed him.
Luck and fate – “Would luck now give him some decent place to live…?” (p.152)
“At the right moment, instead, I’ll strike like Fate.” (p.150)
The influence of the past on the present (Compare this with ‘Death and The Maiden’ and look out for it in both ‘Broken April’ and ‘A Hero of Our Time’).
Said thinks of the past with a sense of nostalgia but he is cautious about his own memories: “Glorious days – how real they were, no one knows – the Feast, love, parenthood, crime.” (p.153)
Towards the end of the chapter he says, “The best thing would be to forget the past…”, but others are surprised by this comment. (p.160)
Law and justice are important ideas in the novel. Said has been subject to the official system of Egyptian justice and there are several references in the chapter to systems of justice such as “the sacred law” (p.155) and “compliance with the law” (p.160).
We are introduced to the protagonist, Said, and to Nabawiyya (his ex-wife), Ilish (his former friend), Sana (Said’s daughter) and the detective. We don’t actually meet Nabawiyya in this chapter and the detective has a minor role as an arbitrator between Ilish and Said.
The characterisation of Said is interesting because of the narrative voices adopted by the writer. The narrative alternates between third person and Said’s interior monologues (shown in italics). We are therefore given privileged access to Said’s thoughts and feelings, which perhaps invites us to identify with him more closely than we might otherwise have done. This identification is tested as the novel progresses and Said’s actions become less acceptable to us.
Said is isolated and driven by hatred and revenge against Nabawiyya and Ilish who have betrayed him. His feelings towards them are summed up unambiguously in the expression “I swear I hate you all.” (p.152) He seems to reserve the worst of his hatred for Nabawiyya describing her as “that woman who sprang from filth, from vermin, from treachery and infidelity.” (p.152) and “one of the secrets of hell!”(p. 158). This can be contrasted with his tender feelings for his daughter Sana. The third person narrator tells us, “As the thought of her crossed his mind. The heat and the dust, the hatred and the pain all disappeared, leaving only love to glow across a soul as clear as a rain-washed sky.”(p.152)
Said’s attitude towards the crime which put him in prison is quite interesting. We assume that he is the ‘thief’ of the novel’s title, but he denies being a criminal. “It was partly fate and circumstances, partly my sense of duty and decency that drove me to do what I did. And I did it partly for the sake of the little girl.” (p.157). His perception of himself becomes a key feature of the novel.
The relationship between Said and the reader is a slightly complex one, but at this stage we are invited to sympathise with him as he is rejected by his daughter and ends the chapter alone with just a few of his books.
Before Ilish is introduced in person to the reader, we are given a very negative impression of him through Said’s thoughts and feelings. He is guilty of having betrayed Said. He appears(p.155) in the window and seems to welcome Said. We’re given a description of his appearance on p.156. Throughout the encounter with Said he seems quite reasonable.
Apart from characterization of individuals, we are also introduced to representations of groups, such as women. Said believes Ilish is “hiding like a woman.” (p.154) He also curses the man “who lets himself be carried away by the melodious voice of woman.” (p.156).
The first chapter is dominated by animal imagery. We start to realise immediately (p.151) that Nabawiyya and Ilish might be the dogs referred to in the novel’s title. Here dogs are seen in a negative way as representing betrayal and treachery. Ilish is again likened to a dog when Said asks, “Have you forgotten, Ilish, how you used to rub against my legs like a dog?” (p.152). This immediately follows Said’s description of himself as “a man who can dive like a fish, fly like a hawk, scale walls like a rat…” (p.152). Here he is using the imagery to attribute positive qualities to himself. Generally, however, the animal imagery is employed in a negative way through terms of abuse such as “cowering like mice” (p.153), “you black beetle” (p.154), “You mangy dogs!” (p.156), “You snake” (p.157). We have already seen a hint of Said’s inflated opinion of himself when he declares that he’ll strike “like Fate” (p.151) and this is emphasised when the narrator comments, “Said felt like a tiger, crouched to spring on an elephant.” (p.156).
When Said tries to approach his daughter Sana, she is described as “like a mouse.” (p.159). This emphasises how timid she is and invites the reader’s sympathy for both Sana and Said.
So, why is there so much animal imagery in the first chapter and is it used throughout the novel ? Why does Said make judgements about himself and others through reference to animals ?
Said is released from prison after 4 years and there is nobody to meet him. He is determined to seek revenge on Ilish and his ex-wife Nabawiyya. He visits Ilish in the hope of claiming back his daughter Sana, but she rejects him and he leaves with just a few books that belong to him.