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Fiction reviews


Naguib Mahfouz - Palace Walk

25 April 1992

Palace Walk
Naguib Mahfouz
(translated by William Hutchins and Olive Kenny)

Reviewed in The Australian

Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. This novel - first published in Arabic in 1956, and now translated into English - is the slow-building story of a middle class family living in Cairo during the First World War.

The War impinges little on the lives of the women of al-Sayyid Ahmad's household, for they virtually never leave home. Only al-Sayyid and his sons are aware of it - for on the streets they encounter the crass and brutal race which has occupied Cairo on behalf of its British overlords. Its young, white soldiers gather in packs in broad daylight to revile the local women, bash young men senseless, or laughingly unravel the turbans of the elders.

"As always when he [al-Sayyid] mentioned the war, he began cursing the Australian troops who had spread through the city like locusts destroying the land... He could not stand to expose himself to soldiers who openly plundered people of their possessions and took pleasure in abusing and insulting them without restraint."

"Then the Australians appeared on the field, and Yasin had been obliged to forsake his places of amusement to escape their brutality."

"...In these dark days when grown men hide at home like mice in their holes for fear of the Australians."

"'It's impossible the English will leave Egypt. [Al-Sayyid is told when the Armistice is announced.] Do you think they're crazy enough to leave the country without a fight? ...Perhaps our men could succeed in getting the Australians sent away. Then order could be restored. Things would revert to the way they used to be. There'd be peace.'"

And so on. This alone should make 'Palace Walk' educational for Australian readers, in this year of remembrance for that sordid trade war.

'Palace Walk' deals with a catalytic period for al-Sayyid Ahmad's family, rotating the viewpoint among the family members in turn. Al-Sayyid himself is a tyrannical pillar of religion at home; seven nights a week he goes out with his friends to drink, laugh and fornicate. His servile wife, Amina, wakes herself every midnight to serve al-Sayyid upon his return.

Their two elder sons endlessly fight hormones and logic to keep the family name blameless. Their two daughters dedicate nearly every waking moment to speculation about marriage. (That the men think about sex, and the women about weddings, may be more a limitation of the author than typical of Islam.) Aisha, the more beautiful daughter, spends hours making-up for the policeman who sees her heavenly face at the window a few seconds each morning; Khadija constantly tries to see into the mind of God: specifically, his reasoning in giving her a big nose. These would-be swashbucklers and incipient house-slaves are united daily, with their ten-year-old brother Kamal, in the fear of their father's swift and terrible temper.

The domestic bully renowned in the outside world for his bonhomie will be no stranger to Australians. The lives of his children, moreover, may recall growing up here in the Sixties: the near-hysterical sexual repression by parents; the adolescent division of the female sex into apronned madonnas and intoxicating sluts. These sufferers, however, are not 13, but in their early twenties: infantilised by a culture which offers - depending on one's age and gender - everything or nothing, but little in between.

But there are as many dimensions to this slow, sprawling masterpiece as there are to Islam itself: many of them are deeply enjoyable. Firstly, age is venerated. When an old person visits al-Sayyid's home the inhabitants fall over themselves to show respect and follow advice. Secondly, parenting is accepted as the single most important human task. Young children are woken each morning by their mother's words, "Light of my eyes, may your morning be bright", and have their significance in the world imprinted on them every day of their lives. It makes Australian parents, with their all-important careers and McDonalds birthday parties, seem rather mediocre.

Thirdly - and a little more trivially - fat men and fat women are lusted after inordinately. The fatter the better: a woman's bum which spills over the sides of her chair is just about the ultimate. (Elle McPherson would be stuck behind a veil and fed.) Other Western ideas are most agreeably overturned: for instance many people in their fifties and sixties are regarded as (gasp) sexually desirable.

'Palace Walk' has no three-act plot. Mahfouz's extensive psychological, social and political description is what the book is 'about'. This in turn gives an intimate and comprehensive insight into Islamic society. That this society seems, in our terms, at once antiquated and liberated simply means that it is incomparable with our own. Certainly a nation with 70,000 children living in doorways and behind rubbish bins cannot assume - as many of our grandfathers apparently did - a moral superiority over Islam.

The rebellion against British rule takes on greater importance near the end of 'Palace Walk'. The family's men are swept up in the massive crowds which gather to revile the British, and shout the name of the national hero, Sa'd Pasha. (At the time Mahfouz was writing, massive crowds would again have been gathering in Cairo to revile the British - and shout the name of Nasser. Perhaps this proved suggestive.)

'Palace Walk's' translators have a clinical, academic style: at times its stilted formality approaches the absurd. This took me till half-way through to get used to. But by then Mahfouz has set the scene with a beautiful completeness - and is beginning to pull the Shiraz rugs out from under his characters. As the logic of the ganglia proves irresistible, the best-laid plans of society, religion, and even the British, begin to fall apart with the most pleasing din.

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