Sunday, March 25, 2007

Palace Walk (1956)

By Naguib Mahfouz
498 pages

“Palace Walk,” written and published in 1956 and translated to English in 1990, is about life in Egypt for the family of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad around the end of World War I. Ahmad and his family are devout followers of Islam. Among the townspeople, Ahmad is a well-respected, generous shop owner. In his family, he is a tyrannical taskmaster who never wavers from his angry demeanor. He has three sons, two daughters, and a wife of over twenty-five years who obeys his every command. Despite the discipline on his family and wife, he spends his nights sinning – enjoying the pleasures of the flesh and the wrath of grapes.

There isn’t much of a formal plot. We get introduced to the family in the opening chapters, and then the action starts. England emerges victorious over Germany, and exiles Egypt’s leaders. This inspires citizens to revolt, cry out for independence, and one of Ahmad’s sons to turn his interest in politics into full-fledged protest, putting himself at the mercy of British soldiers in the name of his views. Among the things this book does well is conveying the shift in mood at this critical point. You feel the entirety of the book’s world consumed with fear – that they’ll never be independent from British rule. When a member of the family has done wrong and has to face father, you feel the tension there too.

It’s a very honest look at day-to-day life in this time and place. Nobody in the book is perfect. In fact, outside of the obvious culture differences, they’re quite similar to you and me. The eldest sister is sarcastic as they come, the sons get into mischief. We got lots and lots of inner moments for each character. This, unfortunately, acts as a cry of wolf. There are long, boring dissertations on mindset during the meddling parts that only serve to add pages, rather than anything significant about character. It makes you want to skip over the important introspection during key climaxes.

The translation gets in the way sometimes, as well. It reads like broken English in spots, with an aggressive wordiness that seems like it’ll never let up. The author also chooses to use bizarre metaphors from cover to cover, comparing feelings among characters to the ripping of pus-filled scabs at one point.


Still, for a novel mostly about family life, it keeps you hooked. Its flaws aren’t daunting enough to keep you from reading and keeping an interest. Doing research for this post, I found out “Palace Walk” was just the start of a trilogy, chronicling the evolution of Egypt into the 50s. Hmm...

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