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.

Birds Without Wings – Louis de Berniéres

“Ah, yes,” said Iskander, “now I remember. The thing about stories is that they are like bindweeds that have to wind round and round and creep all over the place before they get to the top of the pole. Let me see…”

Birds Without Wings is the story of Eskibahçe, a (fictional) small town on the coast of Turkey in the early twentieth century. The story hinges on and builds to the climactic schism between Greece and Turkey that saw a brutal war and deportation of Muslims from Greece and Christians from Turkey. The transition was jarring for both sides, as the author points out, but particularly so for the Christians in Eskibahçe, who have their “Ottoman” identity stripped and, despite speaking Turkish, are declared “Greek” on account of their fluid religious beliefs. Birds Without Wings is marketed as a tragic love story between two characters, pretty Philothei (a Christian) and her devoted goatherd Ibrahim (a Muslim), but this is a deeply misleading characterization since their symbiosis is more symbolic of the town itself than a particularly strong plot.

I did not like Birds Without Wings. Ordinarily I would wait to put this opinion near the end of the post, but I want to put it nearer the front because the multitude of my complaints, ranging from the picayune to the overarching, the stylistic to the structural informs everything I am going to say. I actually found myself disliking the novel quite early on, despite its topic and setting being ones that I tend to gravitate toward, but kept reading less to see what would happen so much as to give it a fair shake. I want to do the same in this review.

The sleepy little town of Eskibahçe is Ottoman through and through, with a good lord, Christians living alongside Muslims, gendarmes who play backgammon, and a common agreement that they are all Ottomans. There are antagonisms between the two groups, but also friendships, including between the Priest and the Imam–it is even expected that a woman will adopt her husband’s religion at the time of marriage. As the book unfolds, the events of the wider world, largely recounted with a focus on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, slowly closing in and constricting life in Eskibahçe.

Birds Without Wings is a book with a myriad of small plots in order to give a panorama of the small town, picking up the threads at various points, but without continuously telling any of them. In order to do this, the chapters are told from a large number of viewpoints at many different points in time; the only repeated viewpoint that changes with the passage of time is that of Philothei. However, this technique is where my issues with structure started. It is not just that there are a variety of narrators and viewpoints, but rather that these are highly inconsistent, such that only some of them are actually told from point of view characters, while others are given as though in an interview with an unheard interlocutors, and others still are narrated by an unspecified, untimed, omnipotent narrator who frequently drops in strange, highly-opinionated comments. For instance:

The French are just setting into motion a petulant foreign policy which has remained steadfastly unchanged ever since, and whose sole object is to obstruct and irritate the Anglo-Saxon world as much as possible, even when that is against French interests.

This is just one example that I actually wrote down. Another memorable instance compared food Mustafa Kemal ate to that of a British boarding school, except without having anything else in the story offer a frame of reference for such a comment. Perhaps the year is 2004 and this omnipotent narrator is the author, but, mostly, these interjections were jarringly out of place.

Some of the characters in Birds Without Wings were compelling enough, and this carried over into some of the plots, including the relationship between the landlord Rustem Bey and his mistress Layla Hanim, the friendships between Karatavuk and Mehmetçik, Ayse and Polyxeni, and Ayse and her husband, the Imam, Abdulhamid. These little relationships, sometimes tainted by nostalgia, envy, or fondness, are the strength of Birds Without Wings. Note that I do not include anything about Philothei, the only narrator who changes, in this list. She is presented as a beautiful baby, girl, and woman, but basically a non-entity and therefore an entirely uninteresting metaphor for the town as a whole, which is a stand-in for the humanitarian disaster throughout the Aegean.

To make matters worse, I found the novel sort of stilted and overwritten. Some of this is affect, being winding, repetitive, and open-ended in the way oral stories and reminiscences can be and for that I can only express personal preference. However, the writing was also verbose and ran particularly toward big words–not a crime in and of itself, but liberally sprinkled, seemingly without purpose. Perhaps there is a case to be made that the words are meant to be archaic and obscure so as to highlight the rural setting, but it seemed to me more likely that the words fit instead with odd authorial choices such as the opinions and similes discussed above that are just out of place.

Another reader might be more sympathetic to Birds Without Wings, but I found little to like and a lot to loathe in this supremely disappointing novel.


Next up is Victor Serge’s Conquered City, which is a narrative account of the Red Army’s conquest of St. Petersburg in 1919.