Palace of Desire – Naguib Mahfouz

You imply there’s a difference between prestige and learning! There’s no true knowledge without prestige and wealth. and why are you talking about learning as though it’s one thing?..Some kinds of knowledge are appropriate for tramps and others belong to the pashas of the world.

How can you describe a spirit using corporeal expressions

Long live the revolution!

The second book in Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire, picks up seven years after the events of Palace Walk. Our protagonists have aged in the intervening years and have just now seemed to recover from the tragedy that struck the family at the conclusion of the last book, but the most notable development is that al-Sayyid Ahmad has loosened his authoritarian grip over his family–not always for the better. Palace of Desire is perhaps most characterized by how the characters begin to strip away the layers of formality and constructed roles, seeing who their family members are for the first time.

The bulk of Palace of Desire is dedicated to the stories of the three remaining men of the family, al-Sayyid Ahmad and his sons Yasin and Kamal. al-Sayyid has only recent resumed his attending the raucous parties thrown by his friends and is utterly infatuated with the lute-player Zanuba, who dreams of being a wife. The older son, Yasin, is one of the villains of Palace Walk and continues in his philandering ways through a second and, in quick succession, third marriage. Both marriages are scandalous and cause his father no end of grief, particularly when their amorous affairs come into contact. Yet, where Yasin is indulgent with women and drink to the point to the point that he fails in his societal responsibilities, al-Sayyid is ever diligent in protecting his children.

The affairs of al-Sayyid Ahmad and Yasin are trapped in the past and it is therefore appropriate that the women they pursue are familiar to the reader from Palace Walk. In contrast, Kamal gets a coming of age story in three parts that all revolve around the same central issue: ought the family be looking to tradition or to the west. Now sixteen, he has grown into an intelligent and likable young man, traditional in his dress and disproportionate in his features, but, above all, firmly committed to the cause of Egyptian nationalism. Although his upbringing is old-fashioned and his background modest, al-Sayyid’s success as a merchant and good reputation won his son a position in a good school where Kamal made friends with the children of wealthy and influential families. However, where his friends are destined for lives of luxury or careers in the diplomatic corps, Kamal is determined to go to teacher’s school and pursue a career in writing, much to his father’s dismay.After all, al-Sayyid Ahmad believes the purpose of educating his sons is so that they can gain prestige in modern Egyptian society. At the same time, Kamal falls in love with Aida, the sister of his dear friend Husayn, but, while his heart longs for this elegant, westernized woman who has spent time in Paris, there remains the question of whether she is using him in order to manipulate someone else. Finally, in his despair, Kamal begins to dabble with things he sees as being outside the form of Islam he was raised with, including prostitutes, alcohol, and western science.

Palace of Desire is a specific location in the book (of Yasin’s new house), a metaphorical one for all of the male characters, and could be regarded as one of the overriding themes. However, I believe the dominant theme is how the characters gradually come to understand who their family members are rather. Frequently, this unveiling takes the form of coming to recognize what people actually do when their family is not watching, such as al-Sayyid’s sons seeing him drink and sing, Yasin and Kamal bumping into each other drunk at a prostitute’s door, or al-Sayyid reading an article on Darwin that Kamal published in a literary journal. Every character in the family, as well as those they interact with, project different version of themselves depending on the context and Mahfouz juxtaposes these externalizations with internal dialogue. Much of Palace of Desire, then, is dedicated to the gradual reconciling of the differences between the two.

My biggest problem with Palace of Desire, and why I think it is a modest step back from Palace Walk, is that the stories of the women felt incomplete. For instance, it is stated that Amina received additional freedoms in the intervening years, but as the story of the men takes them further and further from her walls, she is given proportionally less space. Her actions and words are well-conceived and I liked her moments, but she is no longer the rock of the family. Likewise, there is an episode in the middle of the story about domestic strife at Khadija and Aisha’s new home, particularly strife between Khadija and her mother-in-law, that requires al-Sayyid Ahmad to be drawn in as mediator. It is a marvelous scene, both because Khadija launches a devious propaganda campaign against her sister and mother-in-law and because it prompts al-Sayyid Ahmad to have a revelation regarding gender: that Khadija, despite being a woman, is his child who inherited most of his best qualities. But this arc mostly appears and then vanishes without reference to it elsewhere. As with Amina’s story, the result is that the the writing and characterization is excellent and the themes of these passages mesh with the rest of the story, but the tightly-knit family drama that explored issues of gender in such interesting ways in Palace Walk feels just a bit incomplete in Palace of Desire.

I started reading Palace of Desire shortly after President Trump tried to ban Muslims from entering the United States. I have owned the book for some time now, but chose it because I didn’t have literature by authors from the countries targeted by the ban and Mahfouz wrote in Arabic, so I figured it could serve as a stand-in. Mahfouz presents an Egypt in the throes of a nationalist movement, but trapped between the West and tradition (not necessarily Islam, but it plays a role), between indulging personal choice and fulfilling responsibility, and between the different responses one can have to the inevitability of change.

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I am currently reading two books, Ann Leckie’s Hugo-winning novel Ancillary Justice, which I found a bit difficult to get into but am now enjoying it, I think, and G.R.R. Martin’s The World of Ice and Fire, which I am enjoying the heck out of and have thoughts on both as a fan in terms of the actual material and as a historian in terms of the form.

Autumn Quail – Naguib Mahfouz

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.

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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.

Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein’s 1959 science fiction novel Starship Troopers won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel, but nonetheless elicits controversy and it is easy to see why. On some levels there is very little to this slim book–few rounded characters, almost no plot—and can be seen as a jingoistic pro-military piece of ideologically-infused drivel. On another, there are sentiments about the world and how bootcamp changes a person.

Juan (Johnnie) Rico comes from a wealthy family and his father has determined his life: Harvard business school and then join his company. They don’t get to vote, of course, because that can only happen through military service, but they have money and that is what matters. Then, right after high school, Juan joins the military while trying to show off for a girl. She has the aptitude and intelligence to be a pilot and another friend has the chops to be an engineer. Johnnie is only cut out for the Mobile Infantry—-a grunt in a highly-advanced suit who drops from space sows destruction.

Most of the novel follows Juan’s travails through first bootcamp and early missions, and then officer training school. The narrative unfolds from his point of view, and between grueling exercises the characters touch upon issues of punishment, discipline, responsibility, and violence, but is not uniformly positive or negative on any one position except perhaps on the necessity of citizenship being a right that needs to be earned. It represents issues as genuine problems and for war as an opportunity to make people into the best versions of themselves. And yet Juan is a shining example of this phenomenon, many other characters standing in stark contrast.

I don’t have too many specific observations about this book, in part because I finished it more than a week ago, but while I did appreciate reading it, it did not live up to some of the more well-rounded science fiction I have recently read. Starship Troopers just came across as flatter and more like a philosophical dialogue than a story. However, I cannot help but wonder if some of the controversy about the militarism Heinlein infused in the story comes not from the context of its initial publication, but from the experience of Vietnam in the next decade. In particular, one of the plot hooks later in the story comes from a sudden, forced mobilization of the human race to fight off aliens and how Juan’s father comes to be proud of his son rather than becoming resentful.

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I fell a bit behind on reviews, so I’ll soon be posting discussions of Naguib Mahfouz’s Autumn Quail, a story about the downward spiral of a fired politician told through three relationships, and Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, a new global history that was quite good. This afternoon I started reading Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbor, the ninth Aubrey-Maturin novel.

Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

He could not imagine that the world of the emotions had infiltrated the atmosphere of his home, which he vigilantly strove to keep one of stern purity and immaculate innocence.

Why do you pretend to be pious around your family when you’re a pool of depravity?

Published in Arabic in 1956 and released in English in 1990, Palace Walk is the first book in Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy. The trilogy follows one family in Cairo over the span of decades, but Palace Walk takes place over the course of about a year at the end of World War One.

Palace Walk centers on the household of the merchant al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, which consists of his wife Amina, their daughters Khadija and Aisha, sons Fahmy and Kamal, Yasin, the son of his first wife, and the maid Umm Hanafi. Yasin still lives with the family despite having graduated and obtaining and a job, following in his father’s philandering footsteps but without his restraint. While the two younger boys, the dedicated and Romantic Fahmy and the carefree Kamal still attend school. The women, obedient Amina, homely and intelligent Khadija, and beautiful but vain Aisha, remain secluded within the house. Much of the story is driven by the contradictions within the character of al-Sayyid Ahmad. At home he is a severe, domineering overlord who forbids the women from leaving the walls except for Amina’s infrequent visits to her mother. The family’s rhythms are dictated by the presence of the father, though, and he spends most evenings out with his friends, laughing, singing, drinking, and womanizing.

The children are measured in contrast to their father and, to a lesser extent, mother. For the girls, this is a physical contrast–their eyes and their noses; for the boys, it is a more fundamental comparison–to what extent do their physiques match their father and to what extent did they inherit his appetites. However, at least in his mind, Fahmy and Yasin are fundamentally flawed, taking on aspects of his desires without taste or responsibility. Kamal, the youngest, is the exception to this rule, not because he is without fault, but because he is not yet fully developed and so looks upon the actions of his elders with confusion and wonder.

Palace Walk is a tightly-knit family story, so the bulk of the narrative consists of quiet domestic tension, particularly on the part of the long-suffering Amina, as well as marriage and infidelity. I found these scenes moving for all their quietude, but what elevates Palace Walk into a masterpiece is how Mahfouz sets it across the end of World War One, juxtaposing the family’s agitation for independence from their father with the Egyptian protests in favor of independence from Britain.

News about the strike, acts of sabotage, and the battles had filled him with a hope and admiration, but it was a totally different matter for any of these deeds to be performed by a son of his. His children were meant to be a breed apart, outside the framework of history.

al-Sayyid insists that his authoritarian regime at home is designed to protect his family, but this ambition proves impossible.

Throughout the story Mahfouz does an excellent job of evoking sympathy for women and children even while not making al-Sayyid without redeeming characteristics. Despite the importance of the father, it is clear that Kamal has a particular importance for the story. It is through his eyes that one asks why the girls fall away from the story after they marry. He is untouched by the rancor and violence that surrounds the protests, and being struck by the prominence of his character, I was prompted to look ahead to find out that Kamal is indeed a main character in the second two novels. His innocence, transcending even that of Amina, stands out.

I want to reserve final judgement on Palace Walk until I read the other two books, but this was an excellent start. The story is beautiful and moving, and Mahfouz ratchets up the tension until a shocking conclusion.

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Earlier today I finished reading Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger, a magical-realistic murder story set in an unnamed Indonesian town. Next up is Rina Frank’s 2006 novel Every House Needs a Balcony.

Beer in the Snooker Club – Waguih Ghali

“Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “Perhaps our culture is nothing but jokes.”

Told from the point of view of Ram, the scion of a Coptic family in Egypt’s elite, Beer in the Snooker Club is a window into the upper crust of Egyptian society in the wake of King Farouk’s ouster in 1952. The revolution is forcing the rich to give up much of their money, but they remain diverse–coptic, jewish, muslim–and live blindly within their clubs, ignorant of the wider world around them. Ram, short for Ramis, is disdainful of his myopic peers, and refuses to play nice with them in order to ensure his own comforts, instead preferring to leech off wealthy friends and live gambling windfall to gambling windfall. In general Ram gets by because of his charm and connections, but uses his education to mock most of his peers, and particularly his cousin Mounir to his face.

The story, with Ram as narrator, consists of two settings. The first, which comprises both the opening and the closing, is Cairo, with its gambling clubs and family residences. Sandwiched between these, however, is a partially narrated stay in England, in the immediate buildup to the Suez Crisis. Ram goes to England with his friend Font and their teacher, benefactor, and (for Ram) lover, Edna, a jewish heiress some five years their senior. The trip is significant for their relationships, including offering struggles at the consulate, with former British soldiers, with money, and with Ram’s descent to bitter flippancy, but Ram only describes the falling out with Font and Edna, not any of the potentially more significant events that transpired, including the actual outbreak of the conflict or his deportation.

Ram describes his situation as “suspended between eras of civilization.” Farouk’s monarchy has fallen, Nasser’s revolution has proven inadequate, and Egypt remains at the mercy of American fact-finders and British whims, which now cater to the new ruling elite. The old cosmopolitan ruling class is beginning to fall apart. One of the main tensions in the story is what it means to be Egyptian and whether one should consider themself as a citizen of a country or a citizen of humanity; Ram looks to the latter, but most do not.

Beer in the Snooker Club is a tight little love story centered on, as Edna once calls him, “lonely” Ram. This part of the story was fine, though I liked the women Ram liked more than I liked Ram, who was sort of a petty man who would claim he thought about the greater humanity, but really thought about immediate, simple pleasures. At least in this particularly retelling where there is a sense of both supreme ego and also self-loathing. What made it remarkable to me, however, was not the story itself, but what the story danced around. Major events, either for the characters or for the world, were not narrated, but happened offstage only to have their consequences come to bear in the personal relationships. To whit, Ram is deported from England (but has a major development while there), Edna receives a nasty scar across her face from a whip, Font goes off to fight at the Suez, and all of these events inform the action back in Cairo. Perhaps most importantly, Ram becomes involved in a scheme to publicize the brutality of the new regime. The question is will his political beliefs or his interest at immediate satisfaction win out.

I read that this book is a semi-autobiographical work by Waguih Ghali, and I suspect that another of the tensions alluded to in the text is a result of this. Beer in the Snooker Club was originally written in English and thus the (anti)hero has an English education and is somewhat dismissive of those Egyptians with their hoighty French education and describes Arabic as a language for the common Egyptians. This stood out particularly because the French-educated Albert Cossery took a similar approach to describing jokes as central to Egyptian culture and it was the Arabic-language author Naguib Mahfouz (several of whose books are on my to-read pile) who won the Nobel Prize. I prefer Cossery of those I’ve read thus far, but they tell different stories and are coming from different parts of Egyptian society.

Ghali published only the one book, having committed suicide in 1969 before finishing his second novel. There were points at which this narrative seemed to skip around, but, ultimately, Beer in the Snooker Club is a moving story about Ram’s maturation and subsequent dissolution. I may not hold with his actions, beliefs, or entire world view, but I felt for him and in this sort of story that is sufficient.


Next up, I am currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s Nebula, Locust, and Hugo award-winning novel The Dispossessed.

February 2016 Reading Recap

Nearly a week of March is already past, which is unfathomable. Time particularly flies when traveling, though, and I was at a conference in Omaha for several days. While there I did get to dig through Jackson Street Booksellers, a store with one of the more eclectic collections I know of and (too-high) walls of books that can be claustrophobic. In fact, there were a couple of books I considered looking at, but they were out of reach and I gave up. Other books remained out of my sight because I was tired and didn’t feel up to fighting through piles on the floor. I did, however, find several books by Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobel Laureate, including the first book of the Cairo Trilogy, and a collection of stories by Nina Berberova about the Russian emigre community in Paris in the 1920s. In other words, I found some treasures. My (nominally-)immediate to-read pile, as opposed to my list, had already swollen from seven books to thirteen, and now sits at eighteen and had to be split into two, which is cutting into the symbolic significance of the stack.

I started this stack back in November and had actually been doing well finishing and shelving books from it and then replenishing the pile, at least through the start of February. Then I decided to give Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov another try and, simultaneously, got very, very busy. I barely opened the book during this past week and thus remain stuck at the halfway point of the novel. I am enjoying this one, more than Demons, but I am still struggling with a fundamental problem of dense literature of this length: I have a hard time really enjoying books that take this long to read. Note that this is not an issue of page-count, but one of time. In the past I thought this was a problem remembering what happened in the story, but I am not having this problem so much as just feeling it to be a slog, while the other books come calling to me. It is around the two-week point on the same book that I start feeling the weight of the burden. I am not saying that I will give up on the book again, but since reading is a particular hobby that I carve out time to enjoy, I may need to reconsider when I try to pick up books like Infinite Jest, War and Peace, and The Bleak House, lengthy tomes that remain on my list.

I am not going to do a recap of everything I finished in March because, for the second month in a row, I reviewed all five!