I love book clubs. I love spending hours over a glass of wine (or two), discussing and debating with a diverse group of people. I also love being forced into reading books I wouldn’t normally pick up on my own, like Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk.
Written by the only Arabic writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Palace Walk is the first in a trilogy, a multi-generational saga of a Muslim family living in Cairo. This first novel spans 1917-1919 during the British occupation of Egypt.
This was a bit of a slow starter for me but I’m glad I persevered. The writing (and translation) is beautifully done and the plot deftly moves between both the domestic and political realms of early 20th century Cairo. The book opens with the minutia of every day life for each family member – father, mother, two daughters and three sons. The descriptions are lovingly crafted and extremely detailed. As the book progresses we move from the domestic world of the household to the political turmoil of Cairo during the British occupation.
There is a clear divide between genders in the novel, but Mahfouz never falls into easy stereotypes and each character is multi-dimensional. At times, it was hard not to be frustrated by the lack of autonomy for the female characters (barring the widows – those ladies were bad-ass) but I felt that Mahfouz, as a writer, had a lot of sympathy for them and I’d be interested in seeing how the women of the novels are treated as the trilogy (and the 20th century) progresses.
The plot was almost as effective as the characterisations and Mahfouz managed to shock, surprise and engage me throughout the novel.
Reading this work has really drawn my attention to how few books in translation I actually read. As an English Lit major I naturally gravitate to “great works” written in English – unwittingly closing myself off to a whole world of literature. Granted, there will always be issues with reading works in translation but I believe the bigger issue is only reading works that reflect your own environment.