February 14, 2009

Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk

(belatedly x-listed)

By the end of Palace Walk I was enjoying it a lot more than I was at first, and I think that's because I had learned to let go of some of the expectations I had for the novel--or for novels more generally. Although I knew at an intellectual level how many of my assumptions about the plots and forms of novels must be bound up in very culturally specific literary and other values, much about Palace Walk seemed familiar at first, and I think that sense of familiarity misled me, so that it took a while for me to realize how far from home I had really gone. It's a "family saga" novel, for instance, the first in Mahfouz's 'Cairo Trilogy.' It's a novel of urban life; one of the critical blurbs on the back cover proposes that the "alleys, the houses, the palaces and mosques and the people who live among them are evoked as vividly in [Mahfouz's] work as the streets of London were conjured up by Dickens." So far, so familiar. It opens as a novel about a young wife immured in her home, waiting (like an angel in the house) for her husband to return from his nightly carousing. As the novel goes on, we learn about Al-Sayyid Ahmad's nearly tyrannical control of his home and family--his wife Amina rarely leaves the house, certainly not without his permission, and his daughters are never seen by outsiders, observing the street life outside the house from peepholes in their latticed balcony. In the world of the novel, his strictness is unusually conservative, and the license he grants himself (particularly his series of mistresses) raises even within his own consciousness some concern about hypocrisy. Further, early in the novel one of his sons catches glimpses of a neighbour's daughter and becomes illicitly enamored, while one of his daughters trades glances with a handsome police officer who has spotted her one day dusting the curtains. Both matches are forbidden by the head of the family.

OK: a tyrannical patriarch hypocritically indulging himself while opposing young love--don't we know where this is going? Resistance, rebellion, exposure, reconciliation, marriage. The model, I thought, was not so much Dickens as Trollope, with the balanced attention to an array of closely connected characters, the patient chronological unfolding of events (and then, and then, and then...) without narrative tricks or rhetorical flamboyance, and the evidence of incremental changes to social manners and mores, the gentle but persistent ceding of one generation's norms to another's.

But it didn't take long for this complacent sense of "I know where this is going" to be disrupted. Denied her romantic officer, the beautiful daughter placidly accepts marriage to another suitor of her father's choice (one whom she does not meet until the match is made). She relocates to her husband's house and is essentially removed from the main action of the story. Denied his Mariam, the son harbors some quiet regrets until one day word reaches him that she has been seen smiling (yes, smiling) at an English soldier, and that's the end of any lingering fondness. In other words, this family accepts the authority of their father--and this is even after they become aware of his double life, the chief effect of which revelation is to encourage another son in his own pursuit of pleasure. Another development that I thought at first foretold rebellion: Amina, the faithful, obedient (I would say, servile) wife, goes on a short expedition while her husband is absent, to visit a nearby mosque. On the way back she is struck by a car, making it impossible to keep the outing a secret. As soon as her broken collar bone is healed, Al-Sayyid Ahmad kicks her out of the house, sending her back to her mother's to await his final decision--will he take her back, after such outrageous defiance of his authority? (She went out to a mosque, remember, while he goes out every night to drink, sing, and make love to his mistress.) We know where this would go in a Trollope novel--he'd end up a raving monomaniac in a remote Italian villa. But he takes her back, and, more to my point, she waits patiently for his decision and returns with joy to her cloistered existence, her family responsibilities, and his authority.

My frustration with these aspects of the novel reveal the way formal expectations merge with ideological ones. As I was reading, I kept feeling as if the novel had lost its momentum. Where was it going, if not along the paths I kept foreseeing? But the problem was (is) with me, not (or not necessarily, or not solely) with the novel. I wanted something for this family that, I gradually figured out, it did not want for itself: call it rebellion, or reform, or modernization, or something else. Perhaps it would be right to say that I wanted it to be an English family, rather than an Egyptian one. It's not that the novel does not show any difficulties with the exercise of the father's power, or any alternative possibilities, including greater freedom of movement and expression for women (though barely, and peripherally, and often inviting a cloud of negative judgments). The hedonistic son, for instance, is divorced at the insistence of his wife and her family after he is caught making a move on a female servant (though I think it's possible that the real problem in this case is not that he is unfaithful but that he can't keep his lust under control and away from his home). But the novel is not about challenging the overall structure or values of their lives in these respects, at least not as far as I can tell. My expectations--my wishes--for them reflected values I brought with me to the novel, values that were challenged by their own commitments, both social and religious, and the dramatic tension and comic resolution I sought were not applicable in their case.

What is Palace Walk about, then? Well, like a Trollope novel, it seems to be as much about the day to day things people do and say as about anything more thematically specific: it's a "slice of life" novel, and thus requires no major narrative arc to sustain itself. A plot emerges to do with Egyptian resistance to British control, and this plot does culminate in some dramatic events, but they have not been motivated by a consistent or compelling focus on political or other grievances, and they do not draw together or provide a unifying climax for the novel's varying events or characters (in the way we would expect of a Dickens novel). It's just one more series of events--though through it we are given a thorough refutation of Al-Sayyid Ahmad's wish for his children to live "apart, outside the framework of history" so that "he alone would set their course for them" (422). If this intention of his had been declared earlier, and more of the novel devoted to showing its futility, perhaps the novel's conclusion would have more than personal resonance. Or perhaps the other two novels in the trilogy pick up and run with the revolutionary potential, both of the individual characters' fates, and of the realization that personal life is, must be, political and that Al-Sayyid Ahmad's patriarchal authority and imperious will cannot inhibit the forces of historical change. Maybe, in other words, across the larger series the novel I was expecting emerges.

Other features of the novel interested me as I went along: the style and rhythm to the conversations, for instance, which often (as in Al-Sayyid Ahmad's flirtations with Zubayda) have a theatrical quality, as if language is used as much for rhetorical display and competition as for direct expression. It can seem unnatural or artifical, but my impression from other things I've read by and about Arabic writers is that this is a characteristic or tradition of Arabic speech, one that presumably the translator here has been careful to capture. The characters' speech is also permeated with religious references, particularly quotations from or allusions to the Qu'ran; commonplace as Biblical allusions are in the British novels with which I am most familiar, the pervasive assumption of religious authority and purpose is rarely, if ever, conveyed in this way. And sometimes I was struck by patterns of imagery or metaphor that did not seem to translate comfortably, as here, for example:
These hearts, distracted from their sorrows by their mother's, began to think again about their own worries now they were reassured about their mother's well-being. In the same way, when we have acute but temporary intestinal pain we forget our chronic eye inflammation, but once the intestinal distress is relieved, the pain in the eyes returns. (234)
Well, OK, that's a clear enough analogy, but hardly poetic. Here's another similarly blunt moment:
The moment a thought occurred to him, a memory stirred, someone mentioned her name, or anything similar happened, his heart would throb with pain and exude one grief after another. It was like a decayed tooth with an inflamed gum. For a time the toothache may die down until the tooth presses against a morsel of food or touches a solid object. Then the pain erupts. (258)
Perhaps there's a tradition of medical metaphors that works better in Arabic.

One reason I was curious to read Palace Walk is to broaden the context for my work on Ahdaf Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun. She names a number of English novelists, specifically George Eliot, as influences on her, but is also obviously familiar with Egyptian and Arabic literature, and Mahfouz is probably the most famous Egyptian novelist. It seemed to me that I should read--because I would learn from--novels written out of different traditions, if only to check myself from making assumptions about Soueif's work based on knowing one side of her hybrid literary inheritance. That I felt so blundering working my way through Palace Walk certainly confirmed this opinion for me, and that I ended up feeling fond of, if frustrated by, so many of the people I met in the novel makes me think it won't be out of obligation only that I'll go on and read the next two books in the trilogy.


Sisyphus said...

I liked Palace Walk (though I never did get around to reading the other two novels). I thought it was primarily about that comment from the very opening of the novel --- what it means to be bored but in a world that does not recognize boredom as a concept. Thus when the mother collides with an automobile it is a huge shock, as suddenly the novel crashes out of timelessness into history.

The sexism and using the women really bothered me, but I had a roommate at the beginning of grad school who's Bangladeshi, and she had said that he was representing what was there in the culture rather than critiquing it (she also said he had another novel all about the ruined palace of Tutankamen that was much better --- I didn't read it either.)

The fact that the little boy was so naive and unknowing and _annoying_ bothered me even more, though. I felt like he was a cudgel to beat obvious facts into the reader's head with.

Bookphilia said...

Great review. I haven't read Palace Walk but I have read two other of Mahfouz's novels and I found them to be similarly "slice of life" in both structure and content.

My reaction to Midaq Alley was similar in spirit, if not intelligent articulation, to your response to Palace Walk but I thought The Harafish was really wonderful - it seemed to exude a sort of spiritual magic that made the everyday goings-on of the characters take on a sort of divine importance.

Ludwig Richter said...

The trilogy as a whole helps put Palace Walk in a much larger context. I look forward to what you have to say about Palace of Desire and Sugar Street.

Of the ten or eleven of his books that I've read, Midaq Alley and the trilogy are the most memorable. Midaq Alley, in particular, is a marvelously woven tapestry of Cairo street life. It's one I've reread and could envision rereading again.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Thank you all for your comments. I hope to be getting around to the next two in the trilogy before too long. In the meantime, on the advice of my well-read readers back in the "Humiliation" thread, I'm getting started on Midnight's Children, which will be my February break reading treat.