Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk

13986001.jpg What a pleasure this book was to read. Many thanks to Emily for giving me a copy for my birthday!

Palace Walk by Naguib Mafouz is a long, sprawling saga about a family in Cairo who finds itself caught up in political turmoil at the end of World War I. The earlier sections of the novel are devoted to describing the family — a father and mother with five children — and its dynamics. As I’ve described before, the father, Al-Sayyid Ahmad, has an extremely tight hold over the rest of the family; he dictates what everyone does and where they go.

This is particularly hard on the women, as Al-Sayyid Ahmad insists they follow extremely strict traditional rules of modesty — the mother, Amina, is not allowed out on the streets at all, except for a very occasional visit to her mother. In one incident when Al-Sayyid Ahmad is away from home for a day, Amina breaks this rule and visits a local temple. It is an act of devotion, but it only lands her in trouble: out on the streets she gets hit by a car and when Al-Sayyid Ahmad discovers her injuries and finds out where she has been, he banishes her from the house. Only after his children and friends beg him to take her back does he allow her to return.

The novel describes the struggles each of the children have with this patriarchal authority; one son wants to marry, but Al-Sayyid Ahmad believes he is not ready and refuses to give permission. A daughter receives a marriage proposal she would gladly accept but the father is angry when he finds out the suitor has caught a glimpse of his daughter’s face through the window.

What the children don’t know, however, is that Al-Sayyid Ahmad spends his nights getting drunk, carousing with friends, and having love affairs. Amina sees his drunkenness every night, but even she doesn’t really know how he spends his time. Al-Sayyid Ahmad believes he is talented enough a person and strong enough a father to keep this double standard going; he is a model father as far as he is concerned, and he sees no need for consistency in his behavior.

As you can probably guess from this set-up, Al-Sayyid Ahmad is in for a world of frustration as his children find ways of doing what they want, in spite of their fear of him. The novel charts the increasing difficulty the father has in controlling them, a difficulty made much worse by increasing political unrest. The later sections of the novel become more political in nature, and tell the story of Egyptian demonstrations against the English occupiers. Violence takes over the city, putting the family and its traditional ways at risk.

The novel is slow-moving in the very best sense — it’s never dull or plodding, but rather rich and detailed about the lives and emotions of its characters. With his omniscient point of view, Mahfouz does a good job giving the reader a glimpse into the minds and emotions of many characters, and he can make us understand and even sympathize with the most unlikeable people. I like the way Mahfouz blends the personal, family story with the political one; I didn’t feel that the family story was told in the service of the political one or vice versa, but that Mahfouz wove the two together, showing how national dramas affect people’s intimate lives, and how the private world reaches out into and shapes the public one.

Fortunately for me, this is the first novel in a trilogy, so I have the pleasure of reading further in the lives of this family.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

12 responses to “Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk

  1. I was impressed with the way Mahfouz was able to get into each character and make each voice distinct and appropriate. The political aspect in this novel is just touched on in relation to the characters, but I think the next in the series may have more development. A family in a changing world.

    The father still bothers me. Mahfouz shows several aspects of the man– from the respect accorded him and his capacity for friendship, to his behavior within his family, but I found him terrifying in his dichotomy.

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  2. Ah, I’ve had this on my TBR list for what seems like forever. Your review makes it sound even more wonderful than I had previously thought. I especially loved your description of it being slow and why that is good. It makes me think it would be good to read on a long, lazy weekend.

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  3. Thanks for this review – this book is now on my list.

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  4. That’s exactly it, Jenclair — he does a great job of giving us insight into each person. I love that kind of omniscient narrator. And I agree with you about the father — he’s he’s such a dominating and yet inconsistent character.

    Stefanie — yes! It’s long, lazy weekend reading, exactly. I highly recommend it.

    Tara — I hope you enjoy it when you get there!

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  5. I managed to mooch the first two books in the trilogy. I was just thinking of how I wanted to read at least ten books in translation this year and I am several short. I’d like to read something non-Western European. Maybe I should try this? I’ve heard such good things about it. You’ve made it sound very appealing!

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  6. verbivore

    I really should go back and reread this one of these days. You’ve made me remember why I liked this book so much. Mahfouz is great. This is a trilogy if I’m not mistaken but I never read the other two – I should put all three on my list.

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  7. This would be a good choice, Danielle — it’s fairly long (500 pages), but I thought it read fast. You’d definitely learn something about Muslim and Egyptian culture.

    Verbivore — it is a trilogy, and I’ll have to read the other two some day — Mahfouz published a lot, and I’d like to read more.

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  8. LK

    Yes, this is a great book. I have his Children of the Alley, which was banned. On my TBR list.

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  9. Ah, good to know — I like reading banned books. I must get to that one.

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  10. Eva

    I loved this book! I read it earlier this year, and I was really struck by how convincing Mahfouz made each of the character’s prejudices. I never expected to sympathise with a man who is a complete hypocrite!

    I agree with you that the politics and family stories seemed to be blend seamlessly, and I definitely have the other two books on my short-TBR list.

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  11. Yeah, he’s good at making you both horrified and sympathetic, isn’t he?

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