Saturday, March 4, 2017

Book # 65 (Part 1) - Palace Walk (Naguib Mahfouz)



It used to be when you got a gin and tonic in a bar, or made one at home, you'd get some rotgut gin mixed with some Schweppes or Canada Dry tonic water and a slice of lime.  QED, done.  But thanks to the invention of hipsters, even this simple drink has now gone upscale.  In addition to the obvious plethora of fine gins, many of which have been discussed in detail in this blog (which really should be focusing on fine literature but often gets remarkably distracted by booze), one can find all kinds of "artisan" tonic water.  Naturally it comes at a premium price, because capitalism, but the advertisements and word of mouth make it seem so worth it.  Delicious, sparkling, GMO-free, vaccine-free tonic water, ready to add to your expensive gin and a slice of fresh, locally-grown, orchard-to-market lime, and you're off to paradise! And this insanely spectacular hand-made tonic water is available at a semi-reasonable price that's only five-to-ten times that of Schweppes.  Go for it, dude!  Your great-grandfather drank Schweppes, and now he's dead, probably from the tasteless gin and tonics he was forced to drink because there were no hipsters around yet to imagine up the idea of artisan tonic water.  Poor guy!  It's your duty to your dead ancestors to drink an abundance of the awesome premium gin and tonics that today's technology has made possible.  I jumped on this peculiar but totally reasonable bandwagon myself tonight by making a gin and tonic using Plymouth Gin and Fever Tree Indian Tonic Water, plus not one but TWO slices of lime.  Fuck yeah!  If the British had this gin and tonic 100 years ago they'd still have an empire!  It's that good!  Or maybe I'm just writing that because this is my second one, and they're pretty stiff drinks.  That would explain my overuse of exclamation marks.  Meh, whatever, I'm having a good time.  Maybe a third is in order?  Definitely...hold on a second!!

Aaah, now that's refreshing.  Wait, now where was I?  Oh yeah, "Palace Walk" by Naguib Mahfouz.  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.  And why do I say that?  Is that just the gin and tonic talking?  Well, maybe, but let me try to explain and then you can decide.  Naguib Mahfouz was an Egyptian author, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.  Apparently it was only after he won the Nobel Prize that this book, "Palace Walk", as well as the two other books in this trilogy (called the "Cairo Trilogy"), were translated into English, even though this book was first published (in Arabic) in 1956.  How sad.  Especially because this book is brilliant!  Did I mention that?  This book takes place in the very early 1900s, during and just after World War I, and focuses on the lives of a family living in Cairo, Egypt (not Cairo, Illinois...a totally different place.  Trust me, I've been to both and there's no confusing the two).  The culture and way of life of this family is totally different from what I experience as a white guy in 21st century America.  I mean totally different, starting with the fact that the family is Muslim, and religion plays a big role in their lives.  And they live in an entirely different social and political world as well, one totally alien to what I've experienced in my very long, gin-soaked, and almost completed life.  And yet, the characters!!!  Mahfouz's writing and insight into his characters is exquisite.  Even though they lived in a distant time and place, with different social norms, a different religion, and a different culture, they are so human, so like the people I know in my life, and so like myself.  The author is a brilliant observer of how humans think and behave, and despite the differences in the character's background and my background I could totally relate to them...to how they felt and thought and behaved.  This book really hits home that humans behave like humans behave, and it doesn't matter if it's in Trump's America or in British-occupied Muslim Egypt 100 years ago.  People are people.  Fuck this book was good.  It's the work of a great writer.  If you like literary fiction, you should read it.  I can't wait to read the next two parts of the trilogy.  Woah, this third gin and tonic is fully kicking in.  Hmm, maybe I need a beer chaser.  Would that be prudent?  

This novel doesn't really have a central character, because it's about a whole family, but the central character in that family is Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, or Al-Sayyid Ahmad for short.  Maybe for the purpose of this blog I will just call him Al, because that's easier to type out post-gin and tonic.  Al is the father, or more accurately the patriarch, of the family.  Al lays down the law!  His friends and co-workers (he owns a general store) love the guy...always laughing, always friendly and in good spirits...a real nice guy and everybody's pal.  But they only see half of his personality.  Because when he's at home he's a complete tyrant, who is feared by his entire family.  He's stern, he's angry, he's fearsome.  His wife, Amina, is the exact opposite...very sweet, docile, and submissive.  In fact, so submissive that she hasn't been out of the house in years, except to visit her mother, and all travel must be approved and accompanied by her husband.  However, I must say that this seems not untypical for this society, as everyone else acts like this is normal for wives to be so cloistered, although Al seems to lay a heavier hand on his family than most.  One time while Al is out of town for a few days, Amina's children convince her to take the opportunity to get out of the house.  They encourage her to have the youngest son, Kamal, accompany her to the local holy mosque that she has always longed to visit (she's a very pious woman).  After much hesitation and angst, she does so, and the visit to the shrine means a lot to her, but on her way back she freaks out due to guilt and to all the commotion in the street (which she is not used to) and faints in the street, breaking her collarbone.  Her children urge her to lie about what happened, but she cannot do that, so when Al returns home she tells him everything that happened.  He waits until her collarbone has healed, and then he kicks her out of the house for daring to leave without his permission.  She stays with her mother for awhile, and thinks the marriage is over, but eventually Al summons her back when their youngest daughter gets engaged.  But everyone gets the message:  don't fuck with Al.

The family has five kids:  Yasim, a son from Al's first wife (they divorced), Fahmy (another son), Khadija and Aisha (daughters) and the youngest son, Kamal, a smart and sensitive 10-year old who apparently is closely modeled on the author himself.  Again, these characters are all wonderfully drawn.  Every one of them feels so real to me, and they all have such distinct personalities.  Damn, this guy is such a great writer!  Fahmy is very idealistic and practical and earnest, but always seems like a character bound for an ill fate (Spoiler alert: he is).  He's a law student who gets obsessed by politics, and becomes active in the revolution against the British that occurs near the novel's end.  Khadija, the eldest daughter, is not a very physically attractive girl, but has a very strong personality.  She's quite smart, and uses her caustic and bitter wit to constantly cut others down.  Aisha, the other daughter, is the opposite.  Everyone is in awe of how physically beautiful she is, but she takes more after her mother in her personality...very upbeat and pleasant and pretty mellow.  Kamal, the youngest son, as I said, is a very smart, sensitive, curious and fearless ten year old.  When the British soldiers occupy their street, terrifying the community, Kamal goes up and befriends them.  But perhaps my favorite of the children is Yasim, the eldest.  Not because he's a good guy, but quite the opposite, because he's so bad.  Yasim takes after all the worst traits of his father.  He's a total hedonist, who lives a life of wine, women, and song.  Which is what his father does when he goes out at night, leaving his family behind.  In fact, fairly early on Yasim accidentally encounters his father while out whoring around one night.  Yasim secretly observes his father womanizing, laughing, and drinking.  All Yasim has ever known of his father is the unsmiling angry tyrant at home, so seeing his father in this manner is an eye opener.  It gives Yasim a newfound respect for his father, and makes him understand where his own bad tendencies come from.  Remember, these people are all supposedly pious Muslims, and the father is very religious and strict, so drinking is a total non-sequitur.  But then again, that's the human condition, isn't it?

One turning point in the book is the night Aisha, the youngest, extremely beautiful daughter, gets married.  Her father has arranged a marriage to the son of a distinguished and wealthy family.  There's a big party, and Yasim gets drunk, while hiding his drinking from his family, of course.  Yasim returns home very late at night, and feeling very horny, he tries to rape the family servant who is sleeping outside in the courtyard due to the hot evening.  This woman has been with the family for years, and is quite old.  When Yasim climbs on top of her as she lays there sleeping, she awakens and jumps up and screams, awakening the entire family.  Scandal ensues.  Al decides that the best thing for Yasim would be to get married, to give him an outlet for his physical desires, so he arranges a marriage between Yasim and the daughter of a friend.  Yasim is totally pumped...woo hoo, a chance to have sex any time he wants!!  But after a few months of marriage, he starts to get bored and goes back to his old ways of whoring around town.  Ah well, nice try.  Eventually they get divorced, because while Al's wife may put up with this type of behavior from her husband, Yasim's wife is younger and more modern and isn't going to put up with any of this bullshit.  Poor Yasim.  He eventually goes on to try to rape another servant (and fails once again, and the whole family finds out once again to great scandal) but that's another story.

More things happen.  Khadija marries Aisha's brother-in-law, Fahmy gets caught up in the revolution, etc. etc.  The times they are a changing through the course of this novel, and that's the point.  The ancient ways are giving way to the modern age, and Al is trying to hold it all together with his angry authority.  Will he succeed?  It's getting more and more difficult as the book goes on.  And the family receives a staggering blow at the end of this first novel of the trilogy.  I've just started on the second novel, "Palace of Desire", which occurs five or six years after the events of "Palace Walk", and the reverberations of this tragedy, and of the continually changing times, are being made clear.  Changes are coming, and I will get into that in my next post.  But for now, like the Egyptians struggling to come out from under British rule, I need to escape from the effects of these delicious gin and tonics.  Time for a lot for water and sleep...