lunes, 31 de enero de 2011

The Cairo Trilogy II: Palace of Desire

The Cairo Trilogy II: Palace of Desire [Qasr al-Shawq] (Anchor Books, 1992)
by Naguib Mahfouz [translated from the Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins, Lorne M. Kenny, and Olive E. Kenny]
Egypt, 1957

Two thirds of the way into a work I find entertaining, intermittently odd, but far from mindblowing up to this point, I find I'm constantly asking myself: man, is The Cairo Trilogy overrated or what?  Don't get me wrong--I'm mostly enjoying Mahfouz's weird family soap opera in spite of the fact that I normally have little patience for plots so deeply devoted to, ahem, amorous adventures and their messy endings and the like.  Maybe it's the unexpected references to cocaine and hashish use and the frequentation of prostitutes by seemingly upstanding members of mid-1920s Egyptian society that's livened things up enough for my debauched western imagination to appreciate the good more than the bad in part two of the trilogy.  Maybe it's Mahfouz' talent for amusing me with lines that combine a drunkard's flair for observation with a baroque poetic sensibility: "There were Jalila and Zubayda," al-Sayyid Ahmad observed, "each of them as massively beautiful as the ceremonial camel when it sets off for Mecca with the pilgrims" (78). And maybe it's just the fact that Mahfouz can be quite perceptive at times when zoning in on the psychological states of his absurdly high-maintenance characters (for all the negative examples of this I could also cite, I have to say that I thought many of the passages dealing with the teenaged Kamal's broken heart after the loss of Aïda to a romantic rival rang emotionally true to my recollections of being young and unhappy in love).  Good stuff, all of it.  On the other hand, Mahfouz's fondness for Drama with a capital D is almost Undsetian in its relentless repetitiveness--give him some good domestic foibles or manufactured scandal to write about, and he'll lay into it like a jam band guitarist who can't take his foot off the wah wah pedal.  For chapters at a time at that. While there's a lot of food for thought about love and friendship here--Palace of Desire being less intrinsically political than the preceding Palace Walk in its linking of the al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad family's fortunes with the fate of the Egyptian nation--I'm not quite sure what to make of an overheated drama where, among other things and unbeknownst to each other, the womanizing father and his eldest son Yasin share the same sexual partners...twice. Criminy!  (

Naguib Mahfouz

10 comentarios:

  1. and this book is on my list of books to be read.

  2. Oh, another Undset mention! Yup, the drama was a bit intense in this section. I felt exhausted by the end. Mahfouz's way with words is really something though - I often fell to snickering over his phrasing. And your wah wah peddle is apt. There is just enough in the narrative to keep me engaged, even if the narrative makes me want to scream at times. It's been an interesting adventure thus far. Onward!

  3. I'm almost done with this, and I'll try to get a post up later tonight, but forgive me if I have to be a couple days late!

    While I'm still getting a lot of enjoyment out of it, it's mostly because I already liked the characters from the first book. (But there's not enough Khadija or Amina!)

  4. I'm just past page 100 but am going quickly. Already there is epic dramz.

    ". . . give him some good domestic foibles or manufactured scandal to write about, and he'll lay into it like a jam band guitarist who can't take his foot off the wah wah pedal."

    EXACTLY! You mean he doesn't let up?

  5. Oh, EL Fay, he HARDLY lets up - quite the contrary.

    I think the Undset comparison is apt, even though I'm finding Mahfouz more entertaining and less frustrating than Undset. And I'm starting to wonder whether, to a certain sensibility (perhaps that of the Nobel Prize for Literature committee), this overheatedness is actually a plus rather than a minus.

    In any case, Mahfouz certainly has his moments of clarity and perception. I too was impressed with Kamal's overall journey, even if his lovesick maunderings mid-book helped me remember why I often steer clear of books about teenagers. Still, better a teenager who seems to be developing into an adult, than a 65-year-old adult who still acts like a teenager...

  6. *Nana: It's mostly interesting--just not as good as I had expected yet. Parts are great, others not so.

    *Sarah: Mahfouz's way with words definitely helps compensate for the drama overkill. Can't remember the last novel which entertained me and kind of annoyed me in such equal proportions, though!

    *Shannyn: Will look forward to that post of yours--no worries about the "delay"! I would have liked a little more on the women in the family this time out, too, but at the same time the bits about Khadija's conflicts with her mother-in-law were almost as wearying for me as reading about that miserable bastard Yasin.

    *E.L. Fay: What Emily says. An extended "epic dramz" solo, if you will!

    *Emily: Mahfouz is definitely more entertaining/less frustating/more insightful than Undset, though their similarities grate on me a bit all the same. Think your Nobel committee suspicions may be well founded--perhaps that is the "literary" ingredient that informs and complements their "political" agenda when deciding to anoint an author (at least in the past). And although I've already mentioned this to you elsewhere, I think Kamal's post-Aïda disillusionment is so much more insightfully portrayed than when he was just building her up in his head (which wasn't very convincing to me). Anyhow. Cheers!

  7. Hi Richard, I put my read-a-long post up last night. I just thought of something...I wonder if when this trilogy was originally published in the late 1950s, it was considered revolutionary in its portrayal of sexual relations, particularily when father and son shared the same women. I wonder what typical contemporary lit in Egypt and other Arab lands was like back then. Perhaps they didn't tell it like it "really was", and hence Mahfouz got all that recognition.

  8. Oh well, keeping it all in the family.

    I particularly like this line of your post - "and he'll lay into it like a jam band guitarist who can't take his foot off the wah wah pedal." (giggle) Am also of the Undset frame of mind here. Perhaps it is just the sex and drug usage that keeps us hanging on. :)

  9. *Valerie: I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that Mahfouz suffered criticism in Egypt for both the drug and alcohol abuse and the sexuality depicted in the novel, so I assume those were "revolutionary" in some sense for readers of the time. Unfortunately, I don't have much context for how the trilogy would have been seen in relation to other Arabic literature of that day and age. Maybe someone will write in and help clear this matter up for us!

    *Frances: So glad I got a giggle out of you with that crack! And even though the Mahfouz/Undset thing that we've almost all noticed has to be a little disconcerting, I wonder what you make of Emily's hunch that the Nobel committee really goes for that type of stuff. Make sense to you? Later!

  10. Okay, finished it. . . What was up with that scene where Khadija is telling on her sister to their mother as revenge for keeping silent? Nothing ever comes of it! It was just more drama for the sake of drama!