Honestly, my feelings for this trilogy so far mimic those felt among members of a big family. Sometimes you love being around them, other times you want to scream, “What the what are you doing? Stop!” but you always like (well, love) them.
Palace of Desire, the second in Naguib Mahfouz‘s Cairo Trilogy, is filled with just that: desire. How powerful it is, how it makes people act, what happens when two persons’ desires intersect. Al-Sayyid Ahmad, while slowed down by his grief and his age, is still as lustful as ever, taking a lute player as a mistress. Yasin is a man almost completely controlled by his desires and continues to chase after women no matter how many wives he’s taken and divorced. Kamal’s desire is more genuine (if over-inflated) than that of Yasin and his father. He falls for Aïda (“the beloved”), but she’s unattainable and perhaps not even that special. Some parts of his laments over her were relatable for me, but it just when on a bit too much. (I got it, she’s everything you want. And more.)
I miss the women. So much. Or maybe I just miss the coffee hour scenes, since later in the book the coffee hour has dwindled to Amina, Kamal, and Umm Hanafi. There was a scene early in the book when both Khadija and Amina’s families were over to the al-Sayyid Ahmad residence which I loved. There were even moments of true tenderness from al-Sayyid Ahmad to his grandchildren. I’m thinking that the absence of women from the novel may have to do with the Muslim precept that when women marry, they belong to their new families (I think this is correct, but if it’s not let me know!). Maybe since Khadija and Aisha married into new families, their lives don’t contribute a central component to their original family, and thus the novel. But this doesn’t really explain Amina’s absence, but perhaps her thoughts, mostly mourning Fahmy, aren’t that relevant? Also, a lot of my enjoyment (if that’s the right word…) of Palace Walk came from the thoughts of the suppressed female characters. The narrowed scope results in a somewhat less interesting narrative.
It was more prevalent in the first novel, but Mahfouz often makes some bizarre metaphors and comparisons. I noted a few while reading:
…for an argument may improve a relationship like cayenne pepper, which adds zest to food… (pg. 575)
He had been a stone with obscure inscriptions carved on it, until love had come and solved the riddle. (pg. 582)
Affection is an ancient melody but seems marvelously fresh in each new rendition. (pg. 724)
He was like a vaulter who keeps trying to go just a foot higher only to find himself soaring high into the heavens. (pg. 802)
Maybe it’s a cultural/translational thing?
While the ending of the novel is tragic, I’m very interested (and happy about it?) to see what happens next, as I assume their would be a greater focus on the women characters, especially Aisha as her life will be changing dramatically.