Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Idlewild Discussion on why Palace Walk reads like a European romance novel


Last night’s Idlewild book club meeting was on the epic-ly long novel Palace Walk, which is part one of a literal epic—a three-parter titled The Cairo Trilogy for which author Naguib Mafouz won the Nobel Prize of Literature. The impression I get from this book is that some people find out amazing and some just find it “meh.”

Initially upon finishing, and during book discussion, I generally found it “meh.” Palace Walk focuses on one family living in Cairo before Egypt’s Independence from Britain in the early 1900s (around the time of World War I). The father is domineering; the mother is submissive; the daughters race to get married first; the older sons try to build their own lives while really just following the path of male stereotypes of the time; and then there’s little Kamal, the youngest, the most innocent, the ray of sunshine in an oppressive household (oppressive thanks completely to Papa Bear).

The book’s 500 pages tell little more than that. It’s simply a day-to-day portrait of ordinary individuals (or, as I’m guessing for the time, what would be middle- to upper-class individuals). The characters, with the exception of the eldest son, are all one-sided and completely stagnant in terms of growth or development. They each fit a stereotype. Al-Sayyid Ahmad, the father, is overbearing and harsh—the villain of the novel—but those are expected characteristics based on the historical setting. Likewise, the mother, like all other women in the story, have no role in society outside the home, as expected based on this society’s treatment and opinion of women 100 years ago. To me this seemed somewhat soap-operatic, somewhat a European character novel. It seemed so full of stereotype that I felt it lacked authenticity. I didn’t really learn anything about Egyptian society of 1917 beyond what I could have inferred from history lessons.


  • The father was the villain, but unlike Disney movie villains, we understood his mentality and his thought-processes. He wasn’t just “the villain.” Strict inside the home and lighthearted outside seemed to be his modus operandi. Points to the author for creating transparent characters. 
  • Kamal just never matured in two years. Not sure what that was supposed to represent. Think this was mentioned in discussion but was probably distracted by wine/pita chips.
  •  The daughters marry and become property of their husbands’ home, thus virtually eliminating them from this story of Al-Sayyid Ahmad’s household. Typical of society?
  • Why has this not been a BBC or Masterpiece Theater production? Much discussion of this during book club.
I’m not too motivated to read the other two in the trilogy until reading some basic bios on the author. His politics seemed to so highly influence his writing that I wonder if all I mentioned early about the style seeming European and full of stereotypes was his method of criticizing Egyptian culture. Knowing this historical context makes the writing somewhat more interesting. [Apparently Mahfouz was stabbed in the back (literally, not metaphorically!) in the 90s by a fundamentalist because of his support of Israeli/Palestinian peace talks. And he was 82 years old!] Maybe this story was more “shocking” in the 1950s when it was written (thought it wasn’t translated to English until the 80s), but it seems a little run-of-the-mill now.


Steph said…

Oh, I'm sorry to hear you found this one kind of "meh". I have a copy and have really been looking forward to it, in part because I'd like to read more books by African authors. I do tend to like European romance novels, so maybe I'll enjoy this more than you did?

Amy McKie said…

I'm sorry to hear that you didn't like this one more. I read it earlier this year and found it meh until the big event with the mother and then I couldn't put it down – I just had to know what happened! Still wasn't a favorite book, but I thought the historical aspect of it was the most interesting.

Kari said…

Steph and Amy –

Wow, I hadn't heard of this book before book club and I guess I didn't think anyone else had! I am happy to read that you both read this too. I did find this "meh" upon reading it. I just didn't find it to be anything special. But as I mentioned briefly, reading more about the history and the author and his own politics and how much they influenced his writing…it got more appealing. Of course, I read all of that after I finished reading the book, so it seems more interesting in retrospect.

Amy – That was the one event I was actually surprised at in the novel! I agree with you in that it was kind of a jolt in the plot.