Archive for July, 2011

The Cairo Trilogy volume 1

30 July 2011

Palace Walk. Naguib Mahfouz. New York : Doubleday, 1990. 498 p.

The Cairo trilogy covers decades of life in an exceptional nation through the story of one extended family, the Jawads. While the focus of these books is on personal life, the family is impinged by politics, war and foreign occupation – as well as traffic hazards, illness and the health and education systems. The trilogy opens during the Great War and English colonialism and closes at the end of WW2, as Egypt enters six decades of dictatorship.

In an ultra-conservative society the Jawad family lives in its most conservative area, in the old quarter of town. Even here, however, they stand out as extreme. While many things are likely to jar with the modern reader, the characters are complex agents and you are not pounded by didactic messages.

The middle-aged patriarch is Ahmed Jawad (al-Sayyid Ahmed abd al-Jawad). Sombre or belligerent towards his family, he is easy and charming with customers in his shop, and the life of the party with his friends – and he parties often, at various venues, with male friends and female ‘entertainers’. He gets home after midnight to a wife routinised into awakening herself to meet his various noctural needs.

He keeps his wife Amina housebound. She peers through the latticework of her enclosed front balcony. “There was nothing to attract the eye except the minarets of the ancient seminaries of Qala’un and Barquq which loomed like ghostly giants enjoying a night out by the light of the gleaming stars. It was a view that had grown on her over a quarter of a century. She never tired of it. Perhaps boredom was an irrelevant concept for a life as monotonous as hers.” Her world is family life, piety, and the jinn that haunt dark corners of the house. His daughters Khadija and Aisha are also locked up, unseen and unmentioned. When an Islamic cleric known to the family uttered their names during a conversation with him – a modest enough form of public exposure – it “sounded odd to al-Sayyid Ahmad”, and had “a strange and unpleasant impact on him”. When a wedding eventuates, the gaity and licence that it allows to the Jawad women grates on him.

The 20 year old Khadija asserts herself with sarcasm, while acting emotionally as a second mother. She inspects her vast nose before the mirror, full of secret fear that she will not marry. (“We were talking about you”, one of her brothers jests. “We were saying that if every woman looked like you, men would be spared all heartaches.”) She comforts herself that at least she is beautifully fat. Aisha, her 16-year old younger sister, is mild, slim, blonde and blue-eyed, with a family role as “the useless personification of good looks and charm”. Aisha allows a dashing young policeman to view at a momentarily-opened window: it fills her older sister with jealousy, but also with dread that their father might learn of it.

The sons play bigger roles. Yasin, the eldest, was the child of Ahmad’s first wife, who’d left him, bridling at his tyranny. Yasin had a confused early life, with a distracted mother and a chain of her passing male friends. He later views this period through the lens of his father’s austere religion, and was revulsed. Yasin lacks finer feeling: warm and easygoing, but cynical, mentally lazy. Above all he is driven by lusts.

The younger sons, children of Amina, have taken on her sensitivity. Fahmy is capable of a romantic desire for the sequestered girl next door, available for illicit chats across the roof as she hung out washing, but he is also drawn to the cause of national liberation from colonial rule. (When Amina exposes herself to ridicule by explaining the behaviour of the English rulers along the only model she knows, family life, Yasin smilingly urges her on for his entertainment, but Fahmy irritably puts a stop to it.)

The youngest, Kamal, cleaves most strongly to his mother, and sisters, perhaps because Ahmad is at his harshest towards the little boy, perhaps because his physical appearance is unappealing. He inhabits his mother’s phantom world of spirits and Islamic piety, drawing deep inspiration and sustenance from the presence of the martyr al-Husayn at a nearby mosque.

Palace Walk traces the family and its fortunes up to the unsuccessful revolution of 1919, a mass movement that will surely evoke parallels with Egypt today.


The Great Divorce

30 July 2011

The Great Divorce. Valerie Martin. London: Doubleday, 2004. 351pp. 1st published 1994

Humanity is divorced from the animal kingdom, women are divorced from men and from their own inner, animal rage.

The novel swaps between three loosely connected stories of women in New Orleans. Camille is a young employee caring for big cats the city zoo, watching as her favourite beast crashes painfully but repeatedly against her cage. Camille also does some sex work on the side. More or less friendless, she struggles for self-esteem under routine psychological blows from her alcoholic mother and from a string of desensitised males. Her openness, her longing for love and respect, expose her, of course, to many casual whallops from life, and she will surely bring out any rescue impulses in the reader. At the same time Camille has momentary but compulsive fantasies of being a wildcat. Anything could happen.

Her sensitivity is surprising, since almost everyone around her is blunted. Perhaps it’s the result of a childhood spent watching out for the moods of an aggressive parent.

Someone who could potentially help and guide her is the second main character, Ellen, a vet at the zoo, and the mother of a 14 year old girl. But Ellen is sinking into depression as one of her smug husband’s affairs gets serious, and, yes, a divorce looms. The smug husband is an historian researching the sensational murder of a C19th southern German slaveowner, whose throat had been torn open. Convicted for the crime was his young wife, Elisabeth, fresh from the French quarter. Elisabeth is also the novel’s third main protagonist as it slips back now and then to her era. Elisabeth and her slaveowner husband had each entered wedlock expecting to subdue their spouse without undue trouble, but when his brutishness emerges so does the hideous inequality of their social positions – with the realities of slavery vivid in the background. Elisabeth defies him by finding her own inner ferocity and through recourse to Mambo witchery.

I found this an uneven novel. The interesting Camille rescues it to some extent, but Ellen and especially her husband are wooden, stock-in-trade characters of feminist fiction, and the southern history section is also rather just-so. It was disappointing, after the freshness of some of Valerie Martin’s other novels.