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Palace of Desire by Naguib Mahfouz

Palace of Desire (edition 1991)

by Naguib Mahfouz

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94399,227 (4.07)1 / 110
Title:Palace of Desire
Authors:Naguib Mahfouz
Info:Doubleday (1991), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 422 pages
Collections:Your library

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Palace of Desire by Naguib Mahfouz


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The family of Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad was devastated five years earlier by the death of beloved middle son Fahmy in a revolutionary uprising. Egypt is still loosely under the control of the English but tensions have eased making way for changes to come. Fahmy's sisters are both married now and play a smaller role in this book as does Amina, the long-suffering wife and mother. The remaining men of the family eventually find their way out of grief through their incessant thoughts of women. Ahmad continues to rule his family by day, although with less zeal than in the first book of the trilogy, and haunt the bars and brothels by night. 28-year-old Yasin is a chip off the old block. His particular pattern is marriage and divorce. They both are susceptible to a woman's charms without considering the consequences.

There is a sharp contrast in the behavior of Kamal who has done a lot of growing up since his role of family prankster and all-around brat in the last book. He is a sensitive young man of 17 now who seeks truth and beauty in his life as a young scholar with a keen interest in philosophy and politics. He is in love for the first time, but his is an idealized love that is pure to the point of idolatry. Unfortunately, this love was not returned and he compared the beloved Aida to Egypt with these words: "Has she dismissed the one man she could trust at a time when he was busy defending her rights?" There are hints of political strain in the background of the many lover's quarrels setting the stage for Part Three of the excellent Cairo Trilogy. ( )
2 vote Donna828 | Aug 30, 2012 |
Palace of Desire continues the epic story begun in the first book of Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s highly acclaimed Cairo Trilogy. It picks up five years after the end of the first book. The Sayid family is undergoing great change, much like the country of Egypt in which it is set, and this book appears to serve as a transition volume. Although it was not as compelling a read as Palace Walk, its transitional role has me very eagerly anticipating the last book of the trilogy, Sugar Street.

The family is still grieving the death of son Fahmy that provided the shocking conclusion to the first book, but the tyrannical patriarch, who has thankfully eased his stranglehold on the lives of his wife and children, has reverted to the nightly carousing that he had stopped during the five years since Fahmy’s death. Son Yasin, continues in his father’s footsteps with a twist: he is not happy with any woman he marries so he divorces, twice, and is proving to be an embarrassment to his family.

Mahfouz’s shimmering prose continues to impress as he derides Yasin’s poor choices:

”Matters quickly sorted themselves out, probably faster than he had imagined possible. He had gone along with her, thinking that the novelty of her charms would be enough to sustain her appeal for several weeks or a month, but he must have miscalculated. Although her appearance was seductive, it had caused him to commit the greatest folly of a life littered with them. Her years lay concealed behind that beauty like a fever disguised by rosy cheeks. The pounds and pounds of flesh treasured in layers under the folds of her clothes were, as he put it, not quite as appealing when seen stripped naked, for nothing records the effects of a sad life so graphically as the human body.” (Page 129)

The book’s title comes from the house that Yasin inherits from his deceased mother. Although the house does not play a large role in the story, it is a complete dichotomy from the staid residence that his father maintains. Younger son Kamal is heartsick over the loss of a girl and disappoints his father by deciding to become a teacher and attend the lowly Teachers’ College rather than go on to a career in law. The novel ends with the death of Egyptian leader Sa'd Zaghlul, and the spread of a typhoid epidemic, producing uncertainty about Egypt’s future.

You would not be able to enjoy this novel had you not read the first novel in the trilogy. I don’t believe it would make much sense to a reader unfamiliar with Palace Walk. But as a bridge to the last book, it is very well done and provides an interesting transition piece as the dynamics of the family, and of Egypt, change. Highly recommended. ( )
5 vote brenzi | Aug 7, 2012 |
The second novel in The Cairo Trilogy begins in 1926, seven years from where Palace Walk left off. Egypt is no longer a British protectorate, after the passage of the Unilateral Declaration of Egyptian Independence in 1922, but it has not yet won complete freedom from British rule. As a result, the country is in a state of relative calm in comparison to the 1919 revolution, but leaders of different factions, most notably Sa'ad Zaghlul of the Wafd Party, continued to press for independence. Egypt is ruled by its new King, Fuad I, the former Sultan of Egypt during the protectorate period. He and his wealthy supporters are more closely aligned with the British than with the populist Wafd Party, which adds to the nationalists' ever increasing calls for a government led by the people.

Palace of Desire continues the saga of the family of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, the Cairene merchant owner. He remains an iron fisted tyrant at home, demanding complete loyalty and strict adherence to the Qur'an by his wife and children, while he continues to enjoy the company of his friends, wine and women outside of it. The main character in this second novel is Kamal, al-Sayyid Ahmad's youngest son, who has matured from a wildly passionate and irreverent youth to become an intense but naïve student who loves philosophy and literature and is a fervent supporter of the Wafd Party. His greatest love, however, is for Aïda, the sister of one of his classmates and his closest confidant, who comes from a wealthy family that is aligned with the King rather than the Wafd Party, spends its summers in Paris, and has turned away from the strict teachings of Islam. Kamal's friends reflect the different middle and upper class segments of Egyptian society, and their political and philosophical discussions portray the different viewpoints held by them.

Meanwhile, Kamal's father and stepbrother Yasin provide comic relief, as the two continue to wallow ever more deeply in the mud of hedonism. Kamal's mother, his sisters and their families occupy a more peripheral role than they did in the first novel. There is also less tension and drama outside of the Abd al-Jawad family, due to the absence of British soldiers and street protests that ended four years earlier.

Palace of Desire isn't nearly as compelling as its predecessor, Palace Walk, but it is still a superb portrait of an ordinary middle class Cairene family and Egyptian society in the mid-1920s, and is highly recommended. ( )
2 vote kidzdoc | Aug 6, 2012 |
And the saga continues. If the first book's theme song was "Hypocrisy, thy name is Al-Sayyid Ahmad al-Jawad", the second book in the trilogy can go by "the center can not hold". With the advance of years Ahmid's children slip into adulthood and his grip on his family lessens. His own age (read: mid-life crisis) shakes his confidence. There is also the increasingly modern world seeping in through friends and ideas, which threatens the ancient way of life in the Palace Alleys.
I'm still enjoying the saga! The middle book in a trilogy has the difficult task of propelling the story while still leaving room for a big finish. On to the thrid and final book! ( )
  suniru | Jul 6, 2012 |
It's always difficult to sum up one's reactions to the middle book in a trilogy; one's first impressions are long past, but one doesn't yet have the perspective to look back over the whole series and draw out common themes and larger narrative trends. With that limitation in mind, let me just say:

Holy sexual complexes, Batman!

Yes, my friends, those are my basic thoughts on Palace of Desire, the second installment of Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy. Because if there is a theme running through the pages of this novel, it's the bizarrely and consistently distorted sexual dynamics displayed by almost all its characters, most of them in some way instilled by their relationship to family patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad al-Jawad. Not since the middle portion of In Search of Lost Time, for example, have I read such over-the-top passages of obsessive unrequited love as Mahfouz gives us in the sections about the youngest al-Jawad sibling Kamal:

       How he wished he could see her in this role, that of a woman in love. He had never imagined it in his wildest dreams. What did the glow of passion and affection look like in her dark eyes, which cast him patronizing glances? Although fatal to his heart, it would be a vision to light up the mind with a firebrand of sacred truth justifying an eternal curse on any skeptic.

       "Your spirit flutters like a trapped bird wishing to fly free. The world is a crossroads of ruins. It would be pleasant to leave it. But even if you're certain their lips have met in a rose-red kiss, you can look forward to the pleasure of absolute freedom in the whirlpool of madness."

Well, that's good then. At least he has the whirlpool of madness to fall back on.

Such oddly purple prose brings to the fore Mahfouz's caginess as a narrator: how seriously are we supposed to take Kamal here? Is his seventeen-year-old crush being taken seriously as a madness-inducing "firebrand of sacred truth"? Or are we readers intended to laugh at him for his outsized, extremist idealism? Perhaps we're merely supposed to sigh and shake our heads at his overheatedness? Or, as Valerie suggested last month, is the stiff and overwrought quality in passages like these (and there are many of them) down to a sub-par translation job?

There were times when nearly all the characters in Palace of Desire were so entirely lacking in perspective, and so bratty and overwrought, that I had trouble taking any of them seriously as humans living in the world, much less adult humans. Kamal's seventeen years provide him with some excuse, but what of his brother Yasin, in his thirties and still getting so swept up in his sexual passions that he marries a woman with whom he knows he will soon be bored, but not until he has conducted a brief and passionate fling with her mother? Or the al-Jawad matriarch Amina, who, though she disconcerts the whole family by showing a modicum of backbone for the first time in living memory, stubbornly insists on imagining that a neighboring family is rejoicing in her son's death, and like a grumpy fourth-grader forbids any of her children from having any further association with them? And all this is not to mention Al-Sayyid Ahmad himself, whose pathetic late-life infatuation with a lute player is overcome only by his social snobbery. The extremism and perversity of the characters' sexual obsessions reminded me, as I mentioned, of In Search of Lost Time, but without Proust's humor and patient explication of mental processes I was often at a loss to interpret the author's own attitude toward his over-the-top characters.

Yet, at other times, it seems Mahfouz is doing something deliberate with all this epic drama. Kamal himself, toward the end of the novel, comes to a tentative realization that he has been conditioned by his father's authoritarianism to seek out oppressive relationships in the rest of his life (note that despite the quotation marks Kamal is not actually saying this aloud, but only thinking it to himself):

"Do you know what other consequences there were to loving you despite your tyranny? I loved another tyrant who was unfair to me for a long time, both to my face and behind my back. She oppressed me without ever loving me. In spite of all that, I worshipped her from the depths of my heart and still do. You're as responsible for my love and torment as anyone else. I wonder if there's any truth to this idea. I'm not satisfied with it or overly enthusiastic about it. [...] In any case, Father, you're the one who made it easy for me to accept oppression through your continual tyranny."

It's true that everyone in the al-Jawad household has been accustomed to the role of either a perpetual child, or a tyrant, or a tyrant-to-be. And it's understandable that this would have a warping effect on their ability to grow into rational, well-adjusted adults. Khadija, one of the al-Jawad daughters, suffers so from the lack of an authoritarian father figure in her married life, that she herself becomes a brat and a harpy, picking fights with her mother-in-law and screeching at her husband that he will never compare to her father. As for the eldest son Yasin, having only his father as a model means that he has never learned to walk a middle ground between total repression and complete bacchanalian self-indulgence. Amina, too, has learned no communication style other than extreme passive-aggression, and is unable to confront her neighbors or her philandering husband, or even her lingering grief over her son's death.

And indeed, Mahfouz's strange technique of presenting a character's silent thoughts in quotation marks as if the character were speaking aloud, followed by their actual speech, also in quotation marks, reinforces this dichotomy between the inexpressible internal life and the façade (a façade which, often as not, fools no one). The need for that barrier between the spoken and the silent worlds, and the lack of honest exchange among family members and others, would go some distance towards explaining the over-dramatic terms in which they narrate their own lives. (Not to mention their need for an external release valve, be it alcohol, whoring, or petty squabbling.)

So too, Mahfouz explores the brittleness, the fragility that results from Al-Sayyid Ahmad's authoritarianism. For the patriarch himself, the tremendous amount of effort needed to keep up both his public life of jovial debauchery and his private life of stern respectability, becomes too much to maintain as he gets older. For his son Kamal, who has taken his father's impossibly high religious and ethical standards to heart as Al-Sayyid Ahmad himself never did, it means a zealous religious faith that nonetheless crumbles at his first exposure to the world of science; a literalist conception of "truth" that leaves no margin for compromise or metaphor. And yet nothing in Kamal's mindset has really changed: he flees to science expecting it to provide him with the same kind of absolutist dictates that religion has failed to do; he is still hoping to find another tyrant he can agree both to love and respect.

I can think of no better way to sum up than with a double dactyl:


Flibberty gibbert the
Al-Jawad family's
Tyrannous father trains
Children and wives

Not to remark when his
Drunken compulsions wreck
all of their lives.
1 vote emily_morine | Jan 28, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Naguib Mahfouzprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hutchins, William MaynardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kenny, Lorne M.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kenny, Olive E.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad closed the door behind him and crossed the courtyard of his house by the pale light of the stars.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385264682, Paperback)

The second volume of the highly acclaimed Cairo Trilogy from the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Filled with compelling drama, earthy humor, and remarkable insight, Palace Of Desire is the unforgettable story of the violent clash between ideals and realities, dreams and desires.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:58 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Continuing the story of al-Sayyid Ahmad and his family, this is a fascinating look at Egypt in the 1920s. Increased personal freedoms mix tenuously with traditions of family control, as two of Ahmad's sons court alluring women. Sequel to "Palace walk" and second story in "The Cairo trilogy".… (more)

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