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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Palace Walk

Mahfouz, Naguib. Palace Walk. Translated by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny. Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature with this novel, examines the daily lives of the members of a Cairo family with great and sympathetic detail. The time period, between 1917 and 1919 includes the end of WWI and the Egyptian revolution, but these events are remarkably removed from the family until the very end of the novel. Even then, when the demonstrations against the British become violent and touch the family personally, there remains a strange removal from anything that happens outside of the immediate family members. The novel is a sort of psychological examination of a patriarchal Egyptian family, and Mahfouz reveals the lives of each individual, recreating the thoughts and behaviors of each, and examining the interaction of the family members.

The ability to get into each mind - mother, father, siblings - is a remarkable feat. By taking part in the daily lives of this family, the reader is exposed to a larger explanation of a culture. My question is whether or not Mahfouz approves of the culture. In spite of the patriarch Abd al-Jawad's hypocritical, egotistical and tyrannical behavior (fully related by the author), Mahfouz appears to admire the man. He sympathizes with Amina, usually referred to as "the mother," but doesn't appear to find her treatment entirely reprehensible. The objectification of women as sexual objects or breeders pervades the novel. Adultery and worse are accepted without much fuss.

The father leaves every evening (every evening!), returning in the early hours of the morning after drinking, carousing, spending time with friends and lovers. He sees no serious conflict with his behavior and his religion. The most important thing to the father is his image; everything is subjugated to view of himself he wants presented to the world. He also has two sides that never meet: the witty, amusing, helpful friend who laughs and enjoys life and the stern disciplinarian at home who never smiles, knit picks constantly, and indulges in tantrums. The ultimate control-freak, he can brook no independent thought or desires on the part of his wife or children.

Mother and daughters rarely leave the house. Their confinement is much greater than the wives and daughters of friends; in a society that closely guards women, these women are even more isolated and subservient. Amina is allowed to visit her mother a few times a year, but only in a carriage and chaperoned by her husband. Heaven forbid that anyone glimpse his wife. Although Amina does make one foray out into the world to visit a mosque, the results are disastrous, and al-Jawad tells her to leave his house. He does not divorce her (as he did his first wife who had a more independent mind and resents his confinement and beatings enough to leave him and return to her parents) and eventually allows her to return, but the calculated cruelty of the punishment is accepted by all concerned. Sadly, in order for this treatment of women to work, it has to be supported by the women. Tradition assures the women's complicit support by their own subservient, obedient behavior.

Yasmin, the son by a previous marriage, is a libertine like his father, but is a much more companionable character. When the extent of his failure at self-control becomes evident (will not reveal this spoiler), the reader is disappointed that the one character who had a fun-loving approach is so seedy. Not that the family holds this against him for long... I'm not sure which behavior offends me more, Yasmin's or the family's much greater concern for how it will appear to others, how it will reflect on them.

Fahmy, the middle son, is eighteen when the novel opens and in love with a neighbor, but his request to his father to arrange the marriage is denied. He is a gentle and thoughtful young man, an idealist, and he eventually becomes wrapped up in the nationalist fervor.

Kamal, the youngest son, is not yet crushed entirely by his father and is pampered by the older siblings. He has a certain charm and openness that hardly seems possible in the otherwise oppressive atmosphere.

Now, after all of the above rambling, I have to say that the style of the writing (or the translation) does not make any of this seem overbearing or oppressive to the degree it sounds. How to explain the contradiction? We are totally immersed in the society, the culture, the minds of the participants. The author does not give opinions except through the words, thoughts, and behavior of the characters.

The novel is very slow and quite long. We move through the days and experiences of the characters at a languid pace. There are abrupt endings to several events. We might be expecting more about some of them (the marriages of Aisha and Khadija, the father's affair with a neighbor, the birth of Aisha's child, etc.), but the next chapter often begins days or months later with no further reference.

This review may sound critical, and yet, I thought it was an excellent novel, an eye-opening look at the smallest details of family life in a patriarchal culture. I needed occasional breaks from it, it was quite long and my tolerance for the father reached its limits, but the novel is rich, complex, and informative.

Fiction. Family drama/ foreign culture. 1956. 498 pages.


  1. Just when I think my blog reader is working again. . . I stopped by to see why you haven't been blogging lately and find that you have been. Grrrr! I've reloaded it once and it seemed to be working, but it wasn't picking up that you had new posts.

    This is a beautiful review. If my plate wasn't spilling over right now, I'd see if the library has it. Instead, I'll put it on my TBR list for later.

  2. It is always an interesting dilemma for me - liking a book despite is unlikeable characters! Thanks for the review.

  3. Great review, Jenclair. This book sounds like it belongs on my Wish List. It sounds intriguing.

  4. This book sounds like it evoked much the same feelings I had while reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. How could women give in to the kind of societal pressure that causes them to go through agony and never run as adults? They have to be complicit in it, as you said. It's fascinating. The book sounds very good; thanks for a terrific review.

  5. Cheya - I find that frequently Bloglines drops one of my favorites, and it takes me a while to realize!

    :) I've got a neat little Victorian mystery going right now. I think it is going to be a new series, one that you'd enjoy. I'll post about it soon.

    Marg - In this case, I didn't dislike all of the characters, but the father's egotism drove me batty! It was hard to feel close to any of them because our outlooks on life are so drasticaly different.

    LF - It is intriguing. Sometimes frustrating, but always interesting.

    Bookfool - The foot-binding in Snow Flower is gruesomely graphic isn't it? I never before really understood the process, the pain, the risk of order to have "beautiful" useless feet.

  6. Excellent review Jenclair! Funny, I was just talking about this book with my book group last night. We read it so long ago that few of us remember many details and it would have been great to have that fresh in our minds to discuss the Yacoubian Building. A contemporary Egyptian novel but similar to Palace Walk in that it also explores the lives of a small group of people.

  7. I *just* finished this book as well. I agree with you: the matter of fact description of the women's oppression makes it seem less extreme. It's just one of the facts of the world that the reader must accept.

    Are you going to read the other two books? I can't wait to get my hands on them: I got really sucked in to the characters.

  8. iliana - I must have missed your review of that one! Will have to check it out...

    Eva- I'm planning on the next two, but not right away. I've a second "project stack" that must be whittled down first. I'll check with you to see how you're liking the next one!

  9. This one's on my wishlist so I skimmed parts of your review, but I'm glad to hear it was such a rich novel and you ultimately enjoyed it. I've put off reading it for quite some time because its length is a bit daunting and I haven't really been in the mood, but perhaps I'll have to get myself a copy.

  10. Wonderful review. I just mooched this book and am looking forward to reading it!

  11. Lesley - It is long, but even though it is not full of action, it draws you in.

    Danielle - :) Another mooch, huh? You do very well with BookMooch!