Sunday, February 18, 2007

Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk

Here's a book that I finished last week for February's Biblioholics Anonymous gathering. It was quite an enjoyable read!

Palace Walk may seem like an antiquated throw-back to the great Victorian novels of old, with its brilliant evocation of a faraway setting and its exotic characters. Yet it tells a compelling story -- that of Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, respected middle-class merchant to friends and acquaintances, but fiery-tempered patriarch to his own family. The novel, which is actually Book One of Mahfouz's "Cairo Trilogy" and is set in Egypt just after WWI, centers around al-Jawad, a highly traditional husband and father who maintains strict control over his family by way of the Qur'an while joyously seeking the pleasures of nightly trysts and carousing with friends. When his subserviant wife Amina dares to leave the house one day during his absence to visit a local shrine, she is involved in an accident that she cannot hide from her husband (and his fierce temper). One by one, wife and children must cope with the father's temper and hypocrisy as the novel takes us through marriage ceremonies, British occupation, and even family tragedy.

It is often said that Mahfouz does with Cairo in his fiction what Dickens did with London or Dostoyevsky did with St. Petersburg in their respective works. He offers an objective glimpse into the minds and hearts of his characters, and in the process exposes the universality of their culture, religious beliefs, and overall value system -- things which may seem remote and alien to Westerners, especially in these times.

If you are looking for a multi-cultural novel that shows just how dysfunctional all families can be, Palace Walk is a good pick. In fact, I place this book on the same "family dysfunction" shelf as Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine.

(I plan to read Book Two of the Cairo Trilogy -- Palace of Desire -- later this year.)

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