Thursday, September 07, 2017

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

Subtitle: The Cairo Trilogy: Volume 1

(Book Review)

Finished: August 30, 2017

Why I Read This Book
I had never heard of this book until a few years ago.  But when I was in graduate school, a friend loaned me a copy of the Great Courses Series: History of World Literature by Grant L. Voth.  I used to listen to that series in the background while I did my exercise.

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz was lecture number 44 in that series, and although I had never heard of Naguib Mahfouz or the Cairo Trilogy before, Grant Voth's description of it sounded absolutely fascinating.

(Although it's technically copyrighted material, at the moment of this writing the lecture is freely available on Youtube.  You can listen to it yourself here.  Be warned, there are some spoilers).

This trilogy has been on my list of "books-to-read" ever since then.

It got a boost to the top of that list after I saw the rave review that "Blogging the Canon" gave to this book.  (His review also contains spoilers).
(Blogging the Canon is a blog I stumbled upon a few years ago.  The blogger is on a mission to read through all the great works of literature, and then blog about it.)
Blogging the Canon made comments like:
This is one of the best books I've read in a long time, hands down.  I mean, I really loved this book, almost as much as I'm loving this third, very delicious and refreshing artisan gin and tonic.  This book is brilliant.
I've been pushing for my bookclub to read this book for several months now (as I've previously related here and here).

The other bookclub members were not opposed to this book, but they wanted to wait a bit before tackling it.  The Cairo Trilogy takes place during the British occupation of Egypt, and some people felt that after we finished A Passage to India, they wanted a short break from books about British Imperialism.

...but eventually everyone came around, and we decided to do this book for Book Club.  And here I am with my review.

Although I had already listened to Grant Voth's lecture on the trilogy, by the time I actually got around to reading this book, the lecture was not fresh in my mind.  (I had some vague idea that this trilogy was going to show changes in Egypt, and that it would deal with the struggle against British rule, but that was pretty much all I remembered).  So I was able to enjoy this book pretty much unspoiled. I did, however, re-listen to his lecture after I finished the book, so I'm going to borrow from some of his analysis in my review.

If you didn't listen to Grant Voth's lecture, here's the quick background.  This book was originally published in Arabic in 1956, and is the first book of the Cairo Trilogy.  It was hugely influential in Egypt and Arabian literature, but it wasn't discovered in the West until Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.  Then this trilogy was translated into English.

The Review
I had wanted to read this trilogy in part because I was attracted to the historical elements of it.  I was interested in the British Empire, Egypt's struggle for independence, and the 1919 revolution (W).

As it turns out, however, this is not the focus of the book.

The main focus of the book is to document in minute detail the daily life of a middle-class Egyptian family.

Grant Voth, in his lecture, takes the historical literary perspective and identifies this novel as being part of the realist tradition and influenced by the realist writers of the late 19th century.
Personally, I was reminded of War and Peace.
When I started War and Peace, I thought I would be reading an epic tale about the Napoleonic Wars.  Instead, I found that Tolstoy's real purpose in War and Peace was to fully document everything about daily life of the upper-class in Russia at the turn of the century.  The big historical events do eventually intrude in on the novel, but not until you've gotten to know every detail about the daily lives of these characters.

It's the same with Palace Walk.
According to Grant Voth's lecture, Naguib Mahfouz was intent on documenting everything about the daily life of a time and culture which no longer existed.
By the time Naguib Mahfouz published this novel in 1956, Egypt had changed so much that the traditional conservative Egyptian family lifestyle he describes in Palace Walk no longer existed.
And (again according to Grant Voth) there are some customs and habits of Egyptian daily life during 1917 that would have been completely forgotten had they not been preserved in Mahfouz's novel.

So that was the major adjustment in expectations that I had to make as a reader.  I had to realize that this was not an epic book about war and revolution, but instead a quiet book about the daily life of a middle-class family.

The good news is that once you realize this is what you're in for, and settle yourself down for it, it's very well written.

At our bookclub, we met up once at the halfway point of this novel to discuss our thoughts so far.
Tom said he thought the book was well written, but it was moving very slowly, and going into much more detail than he wanted.  And I sympathized with that.

At the same time, we both remarked on how interesting it was to see a middle-class Islamic family from the inside.

In our discussion Tom mentioned an interesting quote from somebody or other: "A reader lives a thousand lives.  The man who never reads lives only one."*
Tom said (and I agreed with him) that this book was a perfect example of that quote.  By reading it, we have intimate access to a long ago time and a far-away culture.
I will never grow up in a Muslim country, but after having read this book, I feel like I have some idea of what it must have been like for people who did.

At the meeting, I predicted to Tom that the action would take off in the second half of the novel.  I suspected that, like War and Peace, the first half of the novel was going to be all about getting intimately so that when the big historical events finally did intrude in on the novel, they have a much bigger emotional impact because you know these characters so well.

....and that prediction turned out to be correct.

To say more would be to spoil the novel.  So I'll just leave that here for now, but I'll get into spoiler territory in my musings down below.

Various Musings (and SPOILERS warning)

On Islam
It's interesting to see Naguib Mahfouz's portrayal of a Muslim community.
Many of the traditions are different and yet... I was struck by how many more things were the same.
People who grow up in Christian communities will recognize many of the same things in this book.  Change the names from "Allah" to "Jesus", and change the "Quran" to "The Bible", and all of the religious platitudes that these characters express would be equally at home in a Christian community.
The dedication with which these characters studied the Quran, and the way they used selected verses from the Quran to debate every issue in life, reminded me of the way in Protestant schools every ideological belief is supposed to be supported by a Bible verse.
But what struck me most was the blind faith that whatever happened was part of God's ultimate plan. No misfortune or tragedy ever occurred in this community without someone asserting that it must be the will of God, and that they should trust God.
It echoed perfectly the same belief in the Christian community I grew up in, and which I still see parroted frequently by old Christian school friends on Facebook.
I don't know what Naguib Mahfouz's own religious beliefs are, but I got the sense that he was subtlety mocking this blind faith.  But perhaps that's just me reading my own agnostic biases into the book.

On Hypocrisy
A major theme of this book (one that's been commented on by every other review) is that of hypocrisy.
The father in this book holds his family to a very strict standard of Islamic morality, but he himself goes out every night to drink and have love affairs.

This got me thinking about the nature of hypocrisy.

My initial reaction was to think of all the people I knew who were similar.  I've had several Muslim friends who also regularly broke Islamic rules.
And come to that, I've known several Christian friends who regularly broke Christian rules.

In fact, as I've become an adult, I've noticed something interesting: among my former Christian school classmates, the ones who now take the most conservative views of Church doctrine often have the least concern with their own personal morality.

"Well," I thought, "Maybe this is a personality difference.  I tend to over-intellectualize everything, so I'm concerned about the connection between intellectual ideas and actions.  But not everyone is as concerned about intellectual consistency."

But then I thought about it some more, and I wondered if I wasn't being too kind to myself.  I remembered in college I used to have a roommate who was constantly accusing me of hypocrisy, because (in his view) there was a big disconnect between my altruistic liberal worldview, and my selfish middle-class lifestyle.

Maybe, when it comes down to it, we're all hypocrites, because we all have ideologies we can't possibly live up to, whether we're liberal or conservatives.

...I don't know.  I'm just thinking out-loud here.  But the point is, hypocrisy is a major theme in this book, and so it forces the reader to think about it.

On Political Evolution and Fahmy's Character
As I mentioned above, this is one of those books where the plot moves very slowly, but where you get to know the characters intimately.

Although I don't know anything about Egyptian culture in 1917, the characters all "felt" real and authentic to me.

...with one misstep.
Fahmy's political obsession comes out of nowhere.

I realize that students Fahmy's age are naturally idealistic and are naturally attracted to idealistic causes.  But nonetheless, these things do not come out of nowhere.  There is a gradually process of becoming aware of the outside political world, and forming opinions on it.
None of this was shown with Fahmy.  He was politically apathetic one day, and a political zealot the next.

It wouldn't have bothered me, except that this book is so dedicated to realism, that this one false note seemed especially out of place.

Connections With Other Books I've Read
Urabi Pasha is mentioned a few times in this book.  He was long dead by 1917, but he was mentioned as an Egyptian nationalist that the Egyptians still revered.
The story of Urabi Pasha was covered in two books that I've read: Three Empires on the Nile  by Dominic Green and The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham.
Also, the 1919 Egyptian Revolution, as it's described in Palace Walk, sounds like it was a really big deal.  In the book, daily massacres and shootings by the British troops are reported.
There may be some exaggeration going on here, but I got the impression that in 1919 there was an Amritsar happening in Egypt every day.
It seemed suspicious that I had never heard of this before, so I went back to The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781-1997 by Piers Brendon.  And sure enough, Piers Brendon had actually covered all of this, and I had just forgotten about it.  (In my defense, there was a LOT of material in Piers Brendon's book, so I can't be expected to hold it all in active memory 3 years later.)  But the relevant pages are available on Google books HERE.
If you read those pages, Piers Brendon presents a view of atrocities on both sides--the Egyptian mob (at least according to British reports) was violent and bloodthirsty.
Naguib Mahfouz presents no such balance.  In Naguib Mahfouz's book, the Egyptians were protesting peacefully, and the British were shooting peaceful demonstrators.

Changes to Come
Because I've listened to Grant Voth's lecture, I feel like I have somewhat an idea of where this trilogy is going.  And I think that part of the reason Naguib Mahfouz documented traditional Islamic culture in such detail is because the next two books are going to show how that culture changed over time.
...But I'll have to hold off comments on that until I actually read those books.

* I just googled this quote, and it appears to come from George R.R. Martin of all people.  See here.

Book Club Notes

For whatever it may or may not be worth, here are some of the posts from our bookclub Facebook page.

July 27, 2017--I posted
The next book is Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. Tom has once again generously provided the book club with a PDF copy (see his post below). I'll be going to the print shop on Monday July 31. Anyone who wants a paper copy, let me know by then.
Tenative plan is to hold the first meeting on Monday, August 21. Aim to have the first 35 chapters read by that point.

July 27, 2017--I posted
Some notes about the new book (for anyone who has never heard of it before).
As always when one is suggesting books for book club, one is going off of the reputation of the book, and not one's own personal experience with the book. So it's always dangerous to recommend books one hasn't read yet. (Sorry again about Lady Chatterley's Lover).
But, for whatever it is worth, this book comes highly recommended, and sounds like it will be really cool.
I first heard of this book from the History of World Literature lectures (produced by the great courses series). Lecture 44 was devoted to The Cairo Trilogy. (Of which "Palace Walk" is the first book).
It sounded really interesting to me. But don't take my word for it. Listen for yourself and see what you think. (Or don't, if you're worried about spoilers. He does kind of summarize the plot of the book as he discusses it, so bewarned).
I also saw this book highly praised on the blog: "Blogging the Canon"
(Blogging the Canon isn't anyone famous. It's just a blog I stumbled across a few years ago, some guy blogging his journey to read all the books in the canon of classic literature. But for whatever it's worth, Blogging the Canon gives the book high praise.)
And lastly, The Guardian includes this book in their list of "The non-western books that every student should read"
They say of this book ***quote***
The first part of Naguib Mahfouz’s epic Cairo Trilogy, which traces the story of the al-Jawad family over three decades to the end of World War II. Mahfouz, who in 1988 became the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize, lived his entire life in modest circumstances in the Egyptian capital, but was influenced both by nineteenth-century realists such as Balzac and Zola and twentieth-century modernism.
Palace Walk is set in 1917–19. The al-Jawad family is ruled over by the strict patriarch and merchant Ahmad, who keeps his wife and daughters in seclusion, while taking full advantage of the pleasures offered by the sleazier backstreets of Cairo. His five children are, in one way or another, engaged in a struggle to find their own identities, while labouring under the twin regimes of their father and the British colonial authorities. But the novel is very far from schematic. It’s at once a tremendously readable family saga and a novel of adolescent and political awakening. The characters are fully realised and the book teems with the sights, sounds, aromas and bustle of the city. The climactic chapters, which unfold against the backdrop of a demonstration against the British authorities, successfully interweave the personal and social themes of the book. It’s a novel that achieves the rare feat of being deeply satisfying on both a political and an emotional level.
***End quote***
And that's all I know about this book. (If you follow those 3 links, you'll know as much as me.) But hopefully it will be good

August 17, 2017--Tom Posted
Okay, I have to admit that Mahfouz's use of figurative language is wearing me down. There's a simile or metaphor every other paragraph at this rate. It's always "so and so resembled such and such," "similarly blah and blah," "it was like when a bleh bleh did bleh".
He's done a great job giving depth to his characters. I just wish he would trust in his readers to understand the emotions and situations without resorting to needless imagery.

August 30, 2017--I posted
So apparently there was a 1964 movie of this book. Just watched this clip on youtube. Can't understand a word of the arabic, but having read this part of the book I at least have a rough idea of what is going on.
The production values actually look pretty good considering this was a foreign film from the 1960s.

Tom Commented:
Oh, guess I should have mentioned that I have the film. We could watch it. I totally forgot I downloaded it.
I Replied:
Tom Replied:
Yeah, but i haven't checked to see if they sync up well. I'll get back to you on that. If not, I can always edit them.
I Replied:
If we have a watchable copy with subtitles on our hands, I'd totally be up for watching it. Maybe at the next meeting we can make a plan for a movie night
I Later Replied:
Found the whole movie on Youtube. It has subtitles, but unfortunately the subtitles don't show up well on the screen and are hard to read:

Apparently the movie is one of the most important movies in Egyptian cinema history:

August 31, 2017--I posted
Okay, after getting to that really depressing ending, I needed something to lighten me up a bit. And this video helped:

August 31, 2017--I posted
Okay, confession time. I re-watched this video.
I had seen it before, but I didn't remember the details of it well, and it was all a bit hazy in my mind, so it didn't really spoil the book for me.
Now that I know who the characters are, however, it sticks in my mind more, and I'm afraid by re-watching it I've gone ahead and spoiled major details of the 2nd and 3rd novel.
I couldn't help myself though. After that ending to the first novel, I felt like I just had to know what was going to happen to this family.
So, the bad news is I've now gone and spoiled plot points of the 2nd and 3rd novel for myself.
The good news is, though, I feel like after watching this video, I absolutely have to keep reading this trilogy. The way he describes it, it sounds like everything in the first novel is just set up so the reader can see the changes in the 2nd and 3rd novel. And it sounds like there will be some real interesting changes coming up in the next novel

August 31, 2017--I posted
I've been finding what appear to be more modern movie versions of Palace Walk. (I can't understand Arabic, but these scenes are definitely straight out of the novel). It looks like there might have been a TV miniseries based on Palace Walk in the 1980s or something? But I can't find any information on it when I search Google. Anyone know anything?

 It looks like the mini-series ran for a total of 17 episodes. More or less faithful to the book as far as I can make out by just dipping into episodes here and there:

September 5, 2017--I posted
Possible fodder for discussion tomorrow: How well does this account match of the 1919 revolution match what was described in the novel? (Click on the link for what is hopefully the relevant pages of this book on Google Books preview)

Tom Commented:
Well, i definitely don't remember a part in the book where a british soldier gets murdered, danced on, and covered in urine. Jeez.

Video Review
Video Review here and embedded below:

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky (September 07, 2017) - The American Dream

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