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A Thoroughly European Novel

  • Nov 16, 2008
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Buddenbrooks in a fez, Little Women in purdah, Palace Walk describes exotic settings and even more exotic customs entirely in the borrowed structures of a European novel of 'generations,' in which the eternal dilemma of marrying off the young unsettles the comfortable mindsets of the old. Anthony Trollope did it with far greater polish, humanity, and insight in "Orley Farm", a novel of about the same bulk. This is my first encounter with the Nobel Prize winning Naguib Mahfouz, and for that reason I want to be cautious in passing judgment, but I can't see greatness in Palace Walk, neither in the writing per se nor in the totality of the story, which is little more than a soap opera in prose.

Mr. Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, a prosperous shopkeeper in Cairo at the time of World War 1, and his family and servants compose the cast of the drama. The family includes his wife, two daughters of marrying age, a son by a previous wife, another son at the brink of manhood, and a third son, a boy of ten years. They all have their problems, and step to center-stage in rotation. Their problems are all of the domestic sort, at least until the last quarter of the book, when the struggle for Egyptian independence from the British Protectorate impinges on their lives. Metaphysical/intellectual problems can't emerge overtly - however implicit they might seem to the reader - because all such meta-problems are moot, being fully and permanently answered in advance by the Muslim faith they all proclaim.

This novel gives me no justification for even asking whether questions of faith are open for the author, that is, whether Mahfouz wants his readers to challenge the belief system of his characters. I confess that I find it extremely uncomfortable NOT to challenge, and not to find the author challenging a structure of belief that claims so much from its adherents and offers such flimsy and inconsistent guidance. I'm left with the irksome inkling that this is a novel in which the biggest questions go unasked.

From a European-novel perspective, Mr. Ahmad is himself the biggest problem his wife and children have to face. Ahmad is presented to us as a mostly admirable figure, a man of vigor and elan, of stubborn principles and integrity, someone loved and admired by his friends, loved and admired and above all feared by his family. Okay... Maybe he is "quite a guy" but he's also, from a European reader's perspective, an alcoholic with the typical alcoholic's disposition toward domestic abuse, a narcissistic personality verging on sociopathy, an utterly spoiled, selfish, self-indulgent place-holder. He shows approximately the ethical and psychological development of Harry Flashman, without a fraction of the self-knowledge!

Immaturity is the most obvious marker of character in this novel. Ahmad has the social maturity of an under-challenged 15-year-old. His wife is a perpetual child by virtue of living in seclusion from society for her entire adulthood. The two older sons are supposed to be "young men" but their mental age seems at least five years behind their physical. The boy Kamal is officially ten years old, but his behavior and his perceptions seem more apt for a five-year-old. Let's be bluntly honest: Cairo society as portrayed by Mahfouz is shockingly infantile, yet one doesn't have the sense that Mahfouz is aware of the painful impression he's delivering to us outsiders.

I am perhaps being unfair to this book, faulting it for what it doesn't do, but by chance I've just recently read another book that 'happens' at the same historical moment and portrays the burdens of the 'passing of the generations'. The Radetsky March, by the Austrian Joseph Roth, is a quarter the length of Palace Walk (the first of a trilogy!) but four times the depth.

I can't even guess how well - how beautifully, cleverly, originally - written this novel might be in Arabic. The English translation is pedestrian at best, trite at worst. I found myself holding the book in mid-air after a chapter or two and thinking 'oof, how many pages is this critter.' But I did finish it, and I do intend to read the next volume of the trilogy one of these days or years. How's that for 'faint praise?'

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Göran ()
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This first volume in the 1988 Nobel Prize winner's Cairo Trilogy describes the disintegrating family life of a tyrannical, prosperous merchant, his timid wife and their rebellious children in post-WW I Egypt. "Mahfouz is a master at building up dramatic scenes and at portraying complex characters in depth," lauded PW.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Books, Fiction, Parables, Cairo Fiction, Egyptian Fiction, Middle East Fiction, Naguib Mahfouz


ISBN-10: 0385264666
ISBN-13: 978-0385264662
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Anchor
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