Isa ad-Dabbagh is a young bureaucrat in Egypt who is flourishing through a combination of nepotism and corruption, and is about to rise to the top levels of government although he is only in his thirties. Then the revolution of 1952 where the army outlawed the political parties takes place. Isa is an early victim of the purges, set adrift, but not killed. In his own words, banished without being exiled from the country.
Autumn Quail follows Isa through his decline over the course of several years, marching through his relationships with three women. At first Isa is engaged to Salwa, a wealthy cousin whose mother covets his meteoric rise through the state bureaucracy. However, once he loses his position the family cuts off the pending engagement and, impotent, Isa has no choice but to relent. Then, while moping in Alexandria, he solicits the services of a young woman Riri, who forces her way into his life as a mistress and cleaning lady until he discovers that she is pregnant and throws her out with nothing. Finally, Isa forces his way into a marriage with a thrice-married and barren heiress and succumbs to boredom and sloth.
The first relationship he dreams would be happy, but only in that it represents all his success, while he sabotages the second two, becoming enraged at a child he doesn’t want and women he doesn’t love as he clings to the past and they look to the future. Isa suggests that he genuinely loved Salwa and it may be interpreted that his relationship with her would have been strong. However, Mahfouz presents her as an immaculately-credentialed empty vessel that perfectly matches the smooth and selfish corruption embodied by Isa. The relationship might have worked, but together they represent everything wrong with the system.
Amid this series of excruciating romantic misadventures is the emptiness within Isa once his purpose in life, politics, has been stripped of him and given to rivals. The emptiness threatens to consume him and there is a lingering question of whether the revolution will bring about meaningful progress. Yet, other than a war with Israel that takes place overhead and is a topic of conversation with Isa’s formerly-political friends, the broad ramifications of the Revolution are not actually felt. The questions of hope and progress are played out, but only in Isa’s head, not in the streets or prisons of Egypt.
Ultimately, I found Palace Walk to be a more powerful story than Autumn Quail, but where the former is a domestic epic, the latter is a small story of quiet desperation.
I am nearly caught up with things I’ve meant to post here, but still have a review of Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads to come in the next day or two. Next up, I am currently reading Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbour, the ninth installment of the Aubrey-Maturin series.