by Naguib Mahfouz [translated from the Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny)
"There's no reason to be sad, darling. Since antiquity, houses have been for women and the outside world for men."
(Palace Walk, 334)
While I prob. spent something like the first 100 pages of Palace Walk lamenting the fact that Naguib Mahfouz's early prose style was less conversational and more exposition-heavy than his later, lovely Miramar and the second 100 pages enjoying the domestic drama while still kind of wondering why the text was revered by quite so many, the last 300 pages of the novel completely sucked me into the storyteller's charisma vortex with its suddenly epic tale of one Egyptian family's daily life amid the trials and tribulations of Australian and English-occupied Cairo circa 1917-1919. This sucker punch of a leisurely intro aside, though, one of the most disarming things about the first volume in The Cairo Trilogy is that Mahfouz doesn't exactly overwhelm you with any writing tricks--relying on deft characterization, a spotlight on the psychological effects of sexism, and delicious turns of phrase instead. The plot pivots about the comings and goings of merchant al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family, a home where the hypocritical "family man" of a husband is king, the shut-in wife's a slave to her skirt-chasing spouse's every whim, and the five children also live in fear of their tyrannical father. How much the novelist intended the symbol of a repressive home to mirror either the Egyptian male attitude toward women or the English presence in Cairo is up for debate, of course, but I was fascinated by the portrait of gender relations in the novel even as I was repulsed by what some of the artist's brushstrokes revealed (i.e. as just one of many potential examples, the idea that a husband could cheat on his wife and then blame her for complaining about it rather than remaining subservient to his philandering will in silence). Ditto for how I felt about the characters' conflicted reactions to the British soldiers--hating them for being an occupying force while still looking up to them for otherwise representing some of the finer aspects in global civilization and culture--and for what their thoughts about black servants and Turks reveal about socioeconomic and ethnic prejudices of the time. Not sure what Mahfouz has in store for the rest of his tryptich, but the vision that's beginning to emerge from this first canvas makes me guess that it's going to be monumental in scale. For now, a very good but maybe not quite a great example of social commentary disguised as drama--and the new world record holder for similes likening pleasantly plump humans of both sexes to camels! (http://www.anchorbooks.com/)
Sound bite: A mother and daughter, heredity and time
The juxtaposition of the two women appeared to illustrate the interplay of the amazing laws of heredity and the inflexible law of time. The two women might have been a single person with her image reflected forward to the future or back into the past. In either case, the difference between the original and its reflection revealed the terrible struggle raging between the laws of heredity, attempting to keep things the same, and the law of time, pushing for change and a finale. The struggle usually results in a string of defeats for heredity, which plays at best a modest role within the framework of time...
(Palace Walk, 203)
Other Palace Walk Readalong Posts