Naguib Mahfouz is a member of a very small and elite club: that of African Nobel Laureates in Literature. His most famous work is the The Cairo Trilogy, of which Palace of Desire is the second book. The trilogy tells the story of the family of Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, and of their country, Egypt, from 1919 through to 1944. It is an incredibly accomplished series of books, carrying numerous characters across their entire lifespans, and creating a detailed picture of the development of modern Cairo.
In the first book, Palace Walk, we are introduced to Al-Sayyid, and his wife Amina, who he keeps in strict purdah. She has not left her house since she was fifteen, and her life is filled by her five children, three boys and two girls. The second book, Palace of Desire, takes place some five years later. It is largely focused on two of the sons, Yasin, the eldest, who is decadent, foolish, and very kind; and his much younger brother Kamal, a serious young student.
Yasin makes a series of bad marriages, ending with the scandal of marriage to a sort of prositute. Kamal meanwhile passionately worships a girl he barely knows, and enrolls at a poorly regarded College because he is intent on studying ‘higher’ subjects, such as philosophy, rather than subjects such as law, which might eventually ensure him something as pedestrian as an income. He undergoes a crisis when his beloved marries someone else, and begins to dip his toe into the world of prostitutes and alcohol frequented by his brother Yasin, and, we learn, by his father Al-Sayyid, who despite his strict control of his home turns out to be a bon vivant of the first order.
Kamal is thought to be a portrait of Mahfouz, and it is with him that we are most intimate in this book of the trilogy. Here he is, for example, seeing a naked woman for the first time: “he overcame his dismay and ran his eyes down the naked body until they reached their target. For a moment it seemed he could not believe his eyes. With uneasy aversion he looked more closely, but in the end experienced something close to alarm. Was this what women really look like or had he picked a poor example?” Kamal’s struggle with what life should mean is central to Palace of Desire. The book investigates in great detail the perennial question of whether life should be lived for pleasure, or in pursuit of high ideals. For example, once Kamal feels he has finally freed himself from religion, and is now a man of the world, his friend stops him short by declaring: “you still – even after renouncing religion – believe in truth, goodness, and beauty. You wish to dedicate your life to them. Isn’t this what religion requests? How can you claim to reject a principle when you believe in everything derived from it?”
Rather charmingly in his biography Mahfouz tells us virtually nothing about himself, except that he is “an avid reader,” who “has been influenced by many Western writers, including Flaubert, Balzac, Zola . . and above all, Proust.” He is very much an author in this style. His lengthy books teem with incident and character, creating in Palace of Desire a rich picture of the bustling city of Cairo in the 1920s. His characters are are engaging, his stories elegantly handled, and he manages within one family to examine some of the great questions of life. He certainly deserves a place among those writers he so admires, and in my opinion The Cairo Trilogy is among the very best writing Africa has produced.
Sarah Norman is a Zimbabwean who splits her time between Harare and Nairobi. She documents her reading life in the blog White Whale (www.booksof2010.blogspot.com)