Monday, January 15, 2007
Review: Palace Walk
Title: Palace Walk
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
# of Pages: 512
Book 1 of the Cairo Trilogy
Favorite line: "It's beauty that's made me so bored I'm sick. It's like a new word that dazzles you the first time. Then you keep repeating it and using it until it's no different for you than words like 'dog,' 'worm,' lesson,' and other commonplace expressions. It loses its novelty and appeal. You may even forget its meaning, so that it becomes a strange, meaningless word you can't use. Perhaps someone else will come across it in your essay and be amazed at your brilliance, while you're amazed at their ignorance. Don't wonder about the disaster of being bored by beauty."
From Library Journal
This extraordinary novel provides a close look into Cairo society at the end of World War I. Mahfouz's vehicle for this examination is the family of al-Sayyid Ahmad, a middle-class merchant who runs his family strictly according to the Qur'an and directs his own behavior according to his desires. Consequently, while his wife and two daughters remain cloistered at home, and his three sons live in fear of his harsh will, al-Sayyid Ahmad nightly explores the pleasures of Cairo. Written by the first Arabic writer to win the Nobel Prize, Palace Walk begins Mahfouz's highly acclaimed "Cairo Trilogy," which follows Egypt's development from 1917 to nationalism and Nasser in the 1950s. This novel's enchanting style and sweeping social tapestry ensure a large audience, one that will eagerly await the English translation of the entire trilogy. A significant addition to any collection.
Another book I chose for Egyptian immersion value! This one, though, is much more Egypt specific than Arabian Nights.
At the start, I adored this book. I read it while cruising down the Nile, and the pace of the story (quite slow) matched my mood very well. I enjoyed all the characters, interacting with each other in a way utterly foreign to me. The members of the al-Sayyid family are all memorable, compelling and wonderfully well-rounded. It is difficult to like all of them, but it is impossible not to feel *something* (even if it is only pity) for them and for their lives. Only- they certainly don't feel pity for themselves.
Palace Walk is an excellent introduction to the Islamic world in the early 20th century. Have things changed? Well, in Egypt, certainly. But the novel is a no holds barred, brutally honest view of the way life was lived in Egypt in the years leading up to the nationalist movement. Mahfouz makes no excuses for Egyptian life- nor does he apologize for it. He just tells it like it is. And that is a lesson worth learning, especially when it's taught using as lush language as this.
It might have been me and my back pain, but somewhere along the way, I began to get bored with the story. In fact, I began to wonder if there really *was* a story. The novel really just seems like several unrelated incidents pulled together into a book- which is fine, as that's how life is. But I don't read fiction to hear about people living lives like my own. My patience began to run out and I skimmed through the last section of the novel.
That said, though, the book (and its two sequels) won the Nobel Prize for a reason. I fully intend to read the second book in the series, Palace of Desire. And probably the third, Sugar Street.