lunes, 27 de diciembre de 2010

The Cairo Trilogy I: Palace Walk

Palace Walk [Bayn al-qasrayn] (Anchor Books, no date)
by Naguib Mahfouz [translated from the Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny)
Egypt, 1956

"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!  (

Naguib Mahfouz

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

11 comentarios:

  1. My reaction was much the same as yours in terms of the slow intro giving way to a fascination with the characters, and also in terms of mingled horror and interest at the gender and political relationships. I look forward to seeing how Kamal's Anglophilia plays out in his later life - seems like rich fodder for development in the second and third books.

    The gender stuff was extremely claustrophobic for me to read, especially before about halfway through, when I was finally sure that Mahfouz was critiquing the same things that bothered me. Being forbidden from leaving the house! Being blamed for complaining about your husband's infidelity! Never being allowed to express a contrary opinion! (Well, obviously we all know how well I would do with that one, haha.)

  2. Funny how even what conversation there is in this book is rigidly formal. That on top of the heavy handed exposition was a bit rough on me, but ultimately I was enthralled. The way Mahfouz delves into the psychology behind his character's actions and reactions kind of reminds me of Proust. I had better stop making comparisons though and let Mahfouz speak for himself! I'm ready to do so as I venture into the next books, now that I'm pretty certain that I trust him.

  3. *Emily: LOL at your last remark--and how funny what you say about Mahfouz's critique being so important to you re: coming to grips with the claustrophobia! I sort of assumed he was being critical all along, but I remember a point in the novel where I had to ask myself whether he really was being critical or was just a disinterested observer (in which case my own views were kind of labeling him a "critic" without textual support). In any event, a fine tightrope he walked as novelist. And I agree that Kamal's possible evolving anglophilia would be/will be interesting--I understand that the trilogy ends in the '50s, so there's plenty of room for change on that front at least!

    *Sarah: Good point about even the conversation being relatively rigid and formal here! Am now curious whether that was a conscious stylistic choice that will change in the latter two books or whether that was just Mahfouz's early style after all. Re: the psychology and the characters, I liked that the book began with a focus on Amina before shifting to the dad and the other characters. Mr. Ahmad Abd al-Jawad would seem to be the central character in Vol. 1 all right, but he doesn't really dominate the proceedings like that tiring protagonist in K Lav or anything. Anyway, will be interested in seeing what happens to the rest of the clan in the upcoming volumes.

  4. As someone who hasn't read any Mahfouz yet I don't think I would want to start with this one. I got Midaq Alley, have you read it? Palace Walk sounds fascinating and infuriating in equal measures...

  5. *Caroline: I'm enjoying the trilogy so far, but right now I'm glad I started with Mahfouz's Miramar because I think it had a more graceful storytelling style than this (both works offer a lot to ponder thematically, though). Haven't read Midaq Alley but have heard almost entirely good things about it. And since you like film, you might also consider comparing the Mexican movie version of it (starring a young Salma Hayek) to the novel. I had to watch it for a Spanish class once!

  6. Emily pointed out on my blog that the attitude of the young male family members toward the English could parallel their feelings toward their father. Like Kamal loves spending time with the English even though they're basically beating on his father and brothers, and Yasin secretly sees them as the epitome of civilization even though he too desires independence. For all his heavy-handed exposition, I think Mahfouz has more subtlety than we realize. There's something to be said for how multiple forms of oppression parallel each other.

  7. Palace Walk took some time to get into, but it was well worth the effort. I read the entire trilogy a few years ago and just loved it (the second book did seem to drag a little). I've been wanting to read more by Mahfouz... will add Miramar to my list.

  8. I always found the first book the most interesting. The third book Sugar Street seemed not to have quite the fascination for me. That said I thought they were all very good. Mafouz's latter works, as you can see in Miramar, move away from the Victorian or pre modernist style (I'm not sure what to call it). His models, as he notes in Gamal al-Ghitani's book of conversations with him, early on were Flaubert and the like. The other thing to keep in mind, although it sounds pedantic to say it, is the books weren't written as 3 books. It is one long book he had to break up to get published. I would recommend Gamal al-Ghitanis' Mahfouz Dialogs if you want to hear what Mahfouz thought about the work (and his others).

  9. I finished this book a couple weeks ago, but finally got my post up yesterday. My thoughts are here:

    I agree that the first installment started out a bit slowly but then I really got into it. The double standards really bothered me too and altho I didn't mention it in my post, the views/comments on black servants and Turks bothered me too.

    In my post I mention the issue of translation, and in picking up book two today, I noticed that a third person was involved in translating the second book (rather than one for the first). Wonder if that will make a difference in the reading experience? hmmm....looking forward to finding out!

  10. To clarify about the translation... Book One has two translators. Book Two has three translators.

  11. *E.L. Fay: First, apologies to you and the rest of those who left comments after you for my delay in responding. My bad! I never really doubted Mahfouz's pyschological or thematic subtlety; it was his long-winded, overly-descriptive exposition, as opposed to his Miramar style, that seemed kind of heavyhanded and not subtle to me. Love the point you and Emily make about the identification with the English and the father, though!

    *JoAnn: How interesting to hear that you had such a similar experience settling into Palace Walk--and independently verifed at that! Loved Miramar and am heartened by your enjoyment of The Cairo Trilogy as a whole. Thanks for the input!

    *Bythefirelight: I much appreciate these various insights and your reminder that the work was one long piece only broken up for publishing reasons. Will have to look for that book of Mahfouz dialogues, esp. since I do hope to read more of him systematically if the rest of the trilogy holds up for me. Thanks for dropping by!

    *Valerie: Awesome--will be by to look at your post in a little while! So glad you talk about translation--I had wondered about the extra translator, too, but I'm not far enough into the second volume yet to have noticed any stylistic differences that couldn't be explained by authorial intent. In the meantime, thanks again for reading along with us--cheers!