by Naguib Mahfouz
translated by William M. Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny
5 stars - timeless
ALR Blue - no animals
Sometimes exploring the stacks at the library really pays off. I determined to find a book whose wear showed me that it had at one time been popular, but had suffered the fate of being thrust in amongst other, less seemly companions, in the stacks.
Palace Walk is the first novel in the Cairo trilogy by the 1988 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Naguib Mahfouz.
The setting is Cairo in the early twentieth century during the British occupation. The characters are Al-Sayyid Ahmad and his family.
Now at first I took this for an historical novel that would leave me better informed regarding time, place, and culture. Well, yes, it's that, but not really. The setting quickly takes a back seat to the timeless exploration of human nature. The characters demonstrate beautifully how people are not that much different between cultures and generations.
Al-Sayyid himself, tyrant at home, jovial attention seeker away from home.
His wife, Amina, who has made the best life for herself that is available to her and finds comfort and peace in her daily rituals.
Their children, three sons, two daughters, all different, all experiencing the emotional turmoil of growing up and questioning life.
Their world is small, like most people's. Their concerns with matters of no import to others are huge to them. So much so that when the British impose marshal law and there are ongoing demonstrations and many Egyptian freedom fighters killed, the lives of Al-Sayyid's family continue to be focused on their private concerns. They aren't ignoring or dismissing the political strife, but they are trying to live their lives and that requires doing normal stuff.
Allow me to share the opening passage.
She woke at midnight. She always woke up then without having to rely on an alarm clock. A wish that had taken root in her awoke her with great accuracy. For a few moments she was not sure she was awake. Images from her dreams and perceptions mixed together in her mind. She was troubled by anxiety before opening her eyes, afraid sleep had deceived her. Shaking her head gently, she gazed at the total darkness of the room. There was no clue by which to judge the time. The street noise outside her room would continue until dawn. She could hear the babble of voices from the coffeehouses and bars, whether it was early evening, midnight, or just before daybreak. She had no evidence to rely on except her intuition, like a conscious clock hand, and the silence encompassing the house, which revealed that her husband had not yet rapped at the door and that the tip of his stick had not yet struck against the steps of the staircase.
You see? No different than the first few moments of wakefulness that many of us experience. How often have I come to my senses at the usual time on a weekday morning, the sky still dark, and strained my ears to listen for queues that will tell me if it is AM or PM and where I might be in my cycle of routine.
Palace Walk is about people seeking what we all seek; peace, acceptance, love.