Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Book review: Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1990)

I bought this book in or soon after April 2007 at the Co-op Bookshop, where it had been put on sale at a reduced price; it had been, in retail parlance, “remaindered” and I picked it up on one of my lunchtime sorties – I worked nearby, on-campus – for $9.95.

This novel of manners was originally published in Arabic in 1956 and, having been translated by the American University in Cairo, holds up for the scrutiny of readers of English – the language of Egypt’s occupiers at the time it opens; this part set in WWI – a clever portrait of the family of the prosperous, chauvinistic, and distinctly middle-class Shia shopkeeper al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. Mahfouz, who won a Nobel Prize in 1988, is skilful at entertaining, taking us inside al-Sayyid Ahmad’s house with its many rooms and its occupants – his wife, Amina (who is rarely named in this way, and is more often referred to as “the mother” or “the woman”), five children ranging in age from young adults to a nine-year-old primary school student, and the housekeeper Umm Hanifa – and then to the shop of the paterfamilias, who is richly realised and complex, making his deliberations – and his actions – harder to understand.

Regrettably and unnecessarily – in each of its short, punchy chapters the novel harnesses an explosive power – its editors, eager to inject a sense of drama equal to the author’s talent, disclose a major plot point on the back cover of the volume. It’s hard to see why this would have been done unless they were worried that an unusual – and foreign – name would put prospective buyers off completing their purchase. One variable – the ability of men in Egypt at the time to stop women in their household from going outside – constituting the basis on which the novel is constructed.

It’s a brilliant exposé and, as was the practice of great 19th century European novelists (and is still the practice of talented novelists today), Mahfouz uses secondary elements – a street, for example, or the inside of a building – to talk about the world he wants to evoke in the reader’s mind. Along with strong characters he uses language that is redolent with meaning to depict an approximation of “reality” within the world of the novel.

Even though its style is determinedly realistic, this abundance results in pleasure for the reader. Dialogue serves the same end, for example conversations between the two sisters, Aisha (16) and Khadija (who is a little older), or the rich interior world of little Kamal whose thoughts about jinn, as he walks home from school, are shown to the reader in reports interwoven, for example, with a depiction of the appearance of an ad outside a tobacconist’s shop or with a quote from the Koran.

Within a few chapters, Mahfouz – who is still, now, virtually unknown in the West – conjures up the world that drew his interest, and peoples it with credible characters. His vision is adequate to conveying meaning in terms of a man out on the town with his mistress or else that of a young boy sitting at home with his mother and older sisters enjoying a conversation about things familiar to him.

It’s like looking through a stereoscope.

These were devices used for family entertainment in the 19th century. Into a stereoscope you placed a set of special transparencies, and it allowed you to see, if you situated your eyes on one end and held it up to the light, a far-away scene – a building like the Crystal Palace or the Taj Mahal – in a tiny diorama. In Mahfouz’s novel you get images of Cairo in 1918 (or thereabouts – the year the book opens in is not captioned explicitly) in many of its facets. Each street – some are named – is rendered in detail, and it is as if you could go there today and see and hear the same people who – in the novel – are depicted in glittering sentences.

In each short chapter, by focalising the narrative through a different character, Mahfouz is able to delineate society of the time, each of his characters an individual as different from the others as is a person you meet in real life. As a novelist this fascination with the particularity of the individual is, like the restriction that drives the plot, endlessly productive for him. He’s like Walter Scott, but far better, and more elaborate in his creation, as the psychological states of his characters are also visible, allowing you to understand the situations his fictional creations face, and how they think and, just as importantly, feel.

Passions roil behind the silent walls of Palace Walk – the novel’s name signalling at the author’s interest in the threshold upon which the private (the individual, the family) and the public (neighbours, the wider society) meet. His particular interest in personal conduct, justice, and sociability hinting at other concerns, for example the role of government or religion.

Mahfouz, a giant of the artform, deserves to be more widely read and, just as importantly, talked about. By restricting himself to interpersonal relations he gives himself freedom, but because this is a novel you, also, are free to make associations while reading, so your focus might shift from al-Sayyid Ahmad to God or to the head of the administration – the secular and divine points of origin of law. In fact, Mahfouz makes this point explicit in chapter 38:
Everything in the house yielded blindly to a higher will with a limitless authority almost like that of religion. Within these walls even love itself had to creep into their hearts timidly, hesitantly, and diffidently. It did not enjoy its normal influence or dominance. The only dominant force here was that higher will. Therefore, when [Aisha’s] father said no, his verdict had become lodged in the depths of her soul. The girl had firmly believed that everything was really over, since there was no way to escape or to ask for a review. She had no hope that anything would help. It was as though this “no” were one of the processes of nature, like the alternation of night and day. 
The intoxication of living in the presence of such a force must be extraordinary.

Perhaps all fathers are like this. In any case, considered today in the light of recent history, this novel can have broad appeal.

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