Review 1634: Palace of Desire

The three books of Naguib Mafouz’s Cairo Trilogy are all named after streets in Cairo. The home of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is located on Palace Walk, the name of the previous book. His oldest son Yasid’s home is on the Palace of Desire, and desire is certainly a theme for this novel.

The novel is set five years after the last one, beginning in 1924. Since his middle son Fahmy’s death, Ahmad has stopped his nightly drinking and womanizing, but fairly soon in the novel he decides to go out with his friends again. Now a middle-aged man, he finds he has lost his confidence. Instead of flitting from woman to woman, he is soon spending a lot of money setting up his mistress, Zanuba, in a house boat.

Kamal, definitely a portrait of the writer himself, as I suspected in the last book, is now 17 and in love. He is entranced by Aïda, the sister of one of his school friends, who was raised in Paris. This girl belongs to a relatively aristocratic family, and Kamal seems to have no hope but just wants to worship her.

Yasid, having been divorced by his wife in the first book, now decides to marry Maryam, the girl from next door that his brother Fahmy wanted to marry. Also a terrible womanizer, Yasid only decides to marry her because she won’t sleep with him. His choice causes some family problems. His mother Amina and his sisters have broken with her because they think she slighted Fahmy by becoming acquainted with an English officer after Fahmy’s father refused to let him marry her. They also think Yasin should leave alone the girl Fahmy loved. His father cannot admit that he doesn’t approve because he himself had an affair with Maryam’s mother, Bahija.

So, Yasin must go to ask for Maryam’s hand himself instead of sending a relative. When he does, he complicates matters more by starting an affair with Bahija. At this point, I almost wondered if I was reading a farce except that Mahfouz is so deadpan serious.

I wasn’t sure how much I liked Palace Walk, but I liked Palace of Desire less. For one thing, Mahfouz doesn’t spend much time with Kamal’s sisters, Aisha and Adijah. But frankly, I found Kemal’s obsessions and long internal dialogues tedious. Either he’s rhapsodizing about Aïda, whom he seriously doesn’t want to be a real girl, or he’s philosophizing about some other subject. In Mahfouz’s attempts at realism, he frequently interjects a character’s thoughts into the middle of a conversation to show what the character is really thinking. When overused, this technique slows things down too much. Finally, Kamal’s conversations with his friends seem terribly formal and artificial, and the other characters’ flirtacious and joking comments seem clumsy and crude, but this just might be a cultural difference. I was most bothered by Kamal’s interactions with Aïda. Without saying too much about what happens, I’ll just say that he comes off as a bit of an idiot and a prig.

I still plan to read the third novel, Sugar Street, but I hope to like it better.

The New York Times reviewer comments that Mafouz essentially invented the Egyptian novel form with reference to Arabic poetry. I can see that in some of Kamal’s musings, but I don’t have much patience for it.

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Review 1563: #1956 Club! Palace Walk

I experienced quite a bit of culture shock reading Palace Walk, which made me realize that although I have read books set in Egypt about Egyptians, all but one were written by Western writers, and that one, Map of Love, was much more modern. Palace Walk is about Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family, and I believe it’s Mahfouz’s own family thinly disguised.

The novel is the first of three in Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. It begins with al-Jawad’s wife, Amira, getting up at midnight to help her husband get ready for bed after his usual night of carousing and womanizing. Although her husband is a good friend and convivial participant in nightly drinking bouts, at home he is an angry tyrant to his wife and children. I found it interesting that although he has the reputation of a righteous and observant man, no one seems to think his drinking and womanizing make him a hypocrite.

Mahfouz was a writer in the Realism school and as such explores both the good and bad facets of his characters’ personalities (although it sometimes seems like Realists concentrate on the gritty). The novel develops slowly, introducing us to al-Jawad, Amina, and his five children—Yasin, a government clerk who immerses himself in sensuality like his father but with less control; Fahmy, a university student who is serious and ardent; Khadiya, the older, sharp-tongued daughter; Aisha, the younger, beautiful daughter; and Kamal, a schoolboy who may be Mahfouz’s alter ego.

Beginning in 1917 near the end of World War I, the novel at first focuses on purely family concerns such as Fahmy’s desire to be affianced to Maryam, the neighbor girl; Aisha’s receipt of an offer of marriage before Khadiya’s, when their father has decreed that the younger girl will not be married before the older; and Yasin’s mother getting married again, which Yasin thinks is obscene, since she has been married several times. In these domestic incidents, the family constantly faces their father’s anger and intransigence. Mahfouz frequently tells us of his good points although they are not often demonstrated. In fact, there is a lot of explanation going on about the thinking and characters of the family members, some of it quite repetitive.

As the novel develops, external events become more important, especially the Arab Revolution of 1919 against the protectorate of the British. This more outward view makes the second half of the novel move along more quickly.

Certainly, al-Jawad’s actions toward his wife and children are shocking, and Mahfouz makes clear that he is stricter than most others by the comments of al-Jawad’s friends. Yet, it is also clear that no one would interfere in his treatment of his family, since it is his right to behave as he wishes. As an example of some of the things he does, Amina, who has only left the house a few times in 23 years of marriage, takes the opportunity of her husband’s absence on a business trip to visit a nearby mosque. Because Kamal guides her out of her route so that he can visit a pastry shop, she becomes disoriented and faint and is hit by a car. After she recovers, her husband banishes her from the house for leaving it without asking him (and believe me, he would have said no).

His son Yasin, the leaf not falling far from the tree, thinks later in the book when his wife is not happy with his nights out that it is the husband’s right to do anything he wants and the wife’s to obey. Nice.

The trilogy is supposed to be about the effect the father’s tyranny has on his family. I read it for the 1956 Club, and I suppose I will go ahead and read the other two novels. It certainly provides an intimate look into family life and customs in early 20th century Egypt.

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