by Naguib Mahfouz
translated by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny
The first in a trilogy that follows an Egyptian family through several generations and charts their course through a rapidly changing culture and country, Palace Walk was a fascinating and frustrating read for me. Dare I say that it reminded me of the infamous Kristin Lavransdatter…? I’ll point out right away that the major difference is that I LIKED Palace Walk! However, aside from the obvious similarities (both are trilogies, both are historical fiction, both won the Nobel Prize for Literature,) there were other things that made me think of Undset’s book, in spite of myself.
Essentially, Palace Walk covers the disintegration of al-Sayyid Ahmad’s tyrannical rule of his family. From the beginning al-Sayyid Ahmad is a difficult but interesting character. At home he uses his fierce temper and terrible wrath to keep his timid wife, three sons, and two daughters on the narrow path of obedience. In public and with his friends he is a charming and generous man, quick to laugh, and a lover of music and women and fun. He finds within himself a balance between his hardcore religious beliefs and his pursuit of all the good things in life. This balancing act of course ultimately brings his downfall, for his children can’t help noticing that ‘ “Nobody else lives like us” ‘ – including their own father! His belief in the power of the love and fear he inspires in his children blinds him to the possibility of rebellion in any form, and so it is both awful and awfully amusing to witness the destruction of his hold over them.
Like Undset, Mahfouz infused his story with a sense of time and place without being super obvious about it, and the details of how al-Sayyid Ahmad and his family went about their daily lives in post-WW I Egypt was definitely a large part of what I enjoyed about the book. The culture is one I am unfamiliar with except in a general sense, so I felt like I was embarking on a full immersion experience whenever I opened the book. In addition to the details of what life was like for the majority of the population, it was especially interesting to see the difference between them and the ‘ultraconservative, Hanbali bias in religion‘ that Al-Sayyid Ahmad imposed on himself and his family.
Due to the contrast between the life I live and the culture and traditions of Egypt at that time, my notes on the book are full of incensed exclamations and the verbal pounding of fists. While the mantra “Time and place” helped me to understand the general treatment of women, I had a hard time with the attitudes toward women displayed by al-Sayyid Ahmad, and the reincarnation and exaggeration of those ideas in his eldest son Yasin. I had to stop at one point and verify that Mahfouz’s feelings were hurt as much as mine by this, and I was pleased to learn that the role of women in this society was something he was very interested in and was definitely exploring. Later in the book it was interesting to see the contrast between al-Sayyid Ahmad’s daughters and a young woman raised by a much more liberal family. This is something I believe Mahfouz will continue to discuss in the following books.
Another thing that reminded me of Kristin L. was a similar mix of religion and superstition. From the first chapter when Amina, the docile wife, is introduced, the jinn are mentioned. The jinn are a kind of demon, but they seem to come from a different world than the God of Amina’s faith, and to her they are an extremely real, nearly physical presence in her life. Further on, I believe it is her son Fahmy who is pointed out for not submitting to such superstitious beliefs. Religion is an incredibly huge part of life for these people – they can’t get through a simple conversation without asking for God’s blessing, or forgiveness, or submitting events to His will in almost every sentence. I was pleased that Mahfouz detailed various degrees of actual belief though – religion is ingrained in the culture, but it is still a deeply personal thing.
Stylistically, the tone of the book was very straightforward. While being extremely descriptive, Mahfouz wasn’t given to using particularly lyrical language. It’s pretty blow by blow. This could be partially the translation, of course. I don’t remember The Thief and the Dogs being quite so…wordy, but being a stream of consciousness narrative it was quite different in style. In spite of the wordiness of Palace Walk, I found the reading experience to be a bit bland. Again, this kind of reminded me of Undset.
With two more books ahead of me I am reserving the majority of my judgement. For the time being, while it took me awhile to get invested in any of the characters (and I still feel like I’m looking at them from across a wall,) at this point I am definitely eager to see what happens next. I’m not blown away by the overall experience thus far, but I am interested in what Mahfouz is doing and I’m curious to see where he’s going with it.
Thanks to Richard for hosting this readalong. Follow this link to his post, where you will also find links to other reviews. Next up, Palace of Desire, with the discussion taking place around January 30-31.