(A review by Sidharth Vardhan
of Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
First written on November 3, 2016)
The Cairo trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz is a work of Tolstoyan proportions, drawing a picture of a place during a certain period through its portrayal of a large number of well-developed complex characters. Though mostly it is a story of a joint family, it expands into the political and socio-religious arena of its times. There is a lot more to this book than I will go into this review of its the first installment of the trilogy, Palace Walk.
The amorality of the narrator works for me most of the time but sometimes it is really irritating, particularly initially when he is talking about double standards of al-Sayyid Ahmad. When it comes to running his family, Ahmed is quite a traditionalist even for his own times (the 1910s and 1920s) - 'strict' (the polite word for oppressive) both as husband and father; so much that his (second) wife, Amina isn't allowed to leave the house without his permission even after nearly two decades of marriage. When she gives in to the temptation to visit a pilgrimage place in the city (which she hadn't seen in all these years); he punishes her by throwing her out of the house. And this same traditionalist Ahmed becomes a womanizer, a drinker and music player when out among his friends. He doesn't have any problem in taking liberty with the religious values when it comes to his own joy but the rest of his family is not allowed to. Despite this hypocrisy (another word I can't imagine NF ever using for his characters), I still felt for him towards the end.
At least one reviewer has claimed about submissiveness of Amina. But one must remember that she found no support - not in religion (she was deeply religious), not with her husband, not in the society (fate of Ahmed's first wife shows what little chance women of liberal spirits had of approval), not even her mother who tells her to thank God that her husband is not taking another wife.
It is a case of Three_men_make_a_tiger three men make a tiger'</a>, it is very difficult to believe in your own truth when so many people are disagreeing with you. Amina's conditioning is so complete or was it out of jealousy or some need of self-justification, that she did her bit to make sure that her daughter-in-law too must have the same house arrested life as she has ... she actually blames her daughter-in-law of overreacting when later asked for a divorce on grounds of her husband's adultery.
Yasin is Ahmed's son from his first marriage. He dislikes his mother for her adulteries, however, when he discovers his father's sensual pleasures, he is filled with pride - another example of how social pressures are stronger on women. Later, despite being a womanizer, he decided to amend his ways after his marriage and be loyal to his wife. He wants to enjoy his marriage life like any young man would, however, Ahmed's conservative standards won't allow him to take his wife out for even cinemas. And thus he turns back to womanizing.
Perhaps that gives an insight into Ahmed's character too - maybe, he too would have been more honest to his wife, if he wasn't that big a traditionalist. As it is, he doesn't even seem to know her. A friend once gave me a theory of how boys learn the concept of 'male dominant head' figure from their fathers (as in 'A Thousand Splendid Suns'). I don't completely agree, I think it is also about if boys spend enough time with mothers or another model female in their early childhood - to be able to see life from their POV.
But I think Ahmed seems to have this concept of 'male dominant figure'. He thinks he must, that he is figuratively duty bound, to show anger towards his wife and children (he isn't of that temperament by nature); to maintain a 'respectable' distance from them; to hide his sentimental side and so on.
Anyways, there are a lot of other characters as well. Some of the other main characters are Amina's four children (from youngest to oldest) -
Kamal - the kid. Supposed to be a doppelganger of Naguib Mahfouz himself, as the novel is a fictionalization of his childhood.
Aisha - the Barbie doll of the story, that is, a beautiful thin teenage blonde with blue eyes. A great romantic and loves singing in her beautiful voice.
Khadija - the not-so-beautiful one, my favorite because of how she can torture people with her sarcasm. She doesn't let the envy for her sister to overshadow her love for same (though she had sufficient reasons) and is awarded for it.
Fahmy -the idealist student, has an old style look-from-far-no-touching-no-talking kind of love affair with his neighbor, participates in political struggle.
Unlike Yasin, both Kamal and Fahmy, being attached to their mother from their childhood, have far better views of women than Kamal, which proves I was correct. Well, I always am.