I wanted to write something about Palace Walk before the end of the week, because on my customary posting day of Sunday, I will in fact be in Prague. I’ll be there for PhD stuff, attending a week-long summer school on Romanticism (a literary movement which falls at the extreme end of my time period of interest, but my supervisors thought it would still be relevant to what I’m working on). So it’s unlikely I’ll be able to post much until the week after that—and Palace Walk deserves attention while still fresh in my memory!
~~plot details ahead~~
This was the second book in my African Summer reading project, and the first installment of a trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Set in Cairo during and after the First World War, it focuses on one family, that of the tyrannically conservative patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. By an ex-wife he has one son, Yasin; by his current wife, Amina, he has four other children: sons Fahmy and Kamal, and daughters Khadija and Aisha. His family are kept under the strictest of rules; Amina is not allowed out of the house at all. al-Sayyid Ahmad, on the other hand, spends most of his nights on the town with friends, drinking, singing, and having sex with other women (who range from the publicly available, such as the great singer Zubayda, to more private arrangements, such as with the otherwise chaste widow of his neighbour). One of Mahfouz’s great themes is the hypocrisy of Ahmad’s behaviour juxtaposed with the total coherence of his self-image. He truly believes himself to be better than his wife and children, worthy of blind deference merely because he is the male head of the household. The disobedience of his wife Amina—which happens only once in the book, when she takes advantage of his absence on a business trip to visit a mosque in their immediate neighbourhood—is the start of a gradual slope, though, as one by one, his children begin to reveal their independence and to rebel against him. Fahmy, his second son, becomes entangled in the Egyptian nationalist movement and refuses his father’s orders to desist; his eldest son Yasin becomes bored with a wife who seems perfectly pleasant and turns to raping the maids, which leads his wife to divorce him. The daughters, Khadija and Aisha, don’t rebel so overtly, but they marry a pair of brothers and escape his orbit, becoming part of their husbands’ (slightly) more liberal household. The family’s youngest son, Kamal, befriends the English soldiers occupying the streets of Cairo—the same soldiers who humiliate Ahmad and eventually kill Fahmy. Mahfouz interweaves personal, local and global history with a light touch, so that news of the outside world filters through to the women of the household only through their menfolk, but eventually affects them all.
Palace Walk was translated from Arabic for its first English publication in 1991; it was written long before that, in the 1950s. The translation, by William M. Hutchins and Olive Kenny, struck me as frequently stilted and mannered, and it appears I’m not alone in this: a 1992 review of the translation notes that it “fails to capture the spirit of the Arabic” and “does little justice to Mahfouz’s style. What constitutes modern and spirited prose in Arabic has been rendered in a largely dated and stilted English register.” The rest of the review can be found on JSTOR, for those of you with access. I highly recommend it; it explains several things about the translation’s old-fashioned and stuffy flavour. There don’t appear to be any other English translations available, which makes it all the more impressive that Palace Walk has retained its reputation—but having read it, I have to confess that it manages to be extremely engaging despite those linguistic flaws, pulling a reader in with multiple compelling characters and then retaining readerly interest through the tension it establishes between the imperative of complete honesty and obedience, and the reality of unspoken emotions within the al-Jawad family. Mahfouz didn’t write the novel with a twenty-first-century sensibility, naturally, but he knows the price for Ahmad’s persistent abuse of his power: his family, his subjects, can’t trust him with their vulnerability, and so they lie to him, implicitly or explicitly, every day.
The novel ends with the promise of the British Protectorate’s departure and the return of political control to Egyptians, the death of Fahmy al-Awad, and the birth of his sister Aisha’s son—Ahmad and Amina’s first grandchild. The second book, Palace of Desire, will surely shift some of its focus onto the new generation; I’ve already requested it from my local library.