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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Palace of Desire

Naguib Mahfouz

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Palace of Desire

Title: Palace of Desire
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Genre: Novel
Written: 1957 (Eng.: 1991)
Length: 448 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Palace of Desire - US
in The Cairo Trilogy - US
Palace of Desire - UK
Palace of Desire - Canada
in The Cairo Trilogy - Canada
Palace of Desire - India
Le palais du désir - France
in La trilogie - France
Palast der Sehnsucht - Deutschland
Il palazzo del desiderio - Italia
Palacio del deseo - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine continuation of the family saga, but definitely a middle-work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 7/2/1991 Richard Dyer
Commonweal . 14/6/1991 David Castronovo
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/1/1991 P.Theroux
TLS . 15/3/1991 Aamer Hussein
The Washington Post . 6/1/1991 Robert Irwin
World Literature Today . Fall/1991 Issa Peters

  From the Reviews:
  • "The second novel, like the first, is leisurely in its progress; it embraces a wide range of tones and stylistic strategies deriving from Mahfouz's systematic study of the major novels of England, Russia and, especially, France. It is richly descriptive of rooms and streets; it is full of incident and suggestive in psychology. (...) There's a sense in which Palace of Desire is a transitional novel." - Richard Dyer, Boston Globe

  • "The second installment situates the rogue-patriarch against the background of deteriorating traditions, filial insubordination, and the rising tide of nationalism and resentment of British domination. (...) When the novel examines states of consciousness, metaphysics, and the history of ideas, it is sententious. Mahfouz is better on collisions than on musings. It's the wit, irony, and rich sense of incongruity in life that make Palace of Desire an important novel of civilization." - David Castronovo, Commonweal

  • "At its most profound level, Mahfouz's novel explores the processes of personal, historical and metaphysical change. Although Cairo knows nothing of the Jazz Age, it will not remain a medieval city forever. Everywhere there are hints of change. (...) The book teems with shopkeepers, pimps and prostitutes, but despite his exploration of the low life Mahfouz shuns the Egyptian colloquial, regarding it as a disease of language. He wrote this work in a formal literary Arabic, which is faithfully and sometimes rather painfully reflected in the translation. Palace of Desire is an old-fashioned novel, and none the worse for that, being old-fashioned in its confidence, its richness and its seriousness. It is a marvelous read." - Robert Irwin, The Washington Post

  • "Whereas the first volume, portraying the old established order, moves slowly, the second proceeds at a faster pace, reflecting the change taking place in Cairene life during the years covered (1924-27). (...) Palace of Desire is above all a compelling novel filled with drama and humor of the Egyptian variety. Coming from the pen of experienced translators, the English text flows naturally." - Issa Peters, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Palace of Desire continues the story begun in Palace Walk. The previous novel closed with the tragic death of Fahmy, the most promising of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad's sons; this one begins five years later, and already the feel is a very different one.
       The impact of Fahmy's death is still being felt when Palace of Desire begins. Mahfouz effectively conveys how even the island that is the house on Palace Walk could not escape the transformations beyond its walls, and also within them, as Amina -- the wife and mother -- is described:

     Night after night she had stood on the balcony observing the street through the wooden grille. What she could see of the street had not altered, but change had crept through her.
       After a long period of mourning and reflection, al-Sayyid Ahmad finally did return to his old ways, enjoying alcohol and entertainment and now finally ready to take up with women once again. Now in his mid-fifties, he is no longer in top shape, and isn't quite as enthusiastic any longer; still, he joins in with his close and devoted friends, trying, for as long as possible, to enjoy the lifestyle he has enjoyed for so long. He's a bit wiser now, however, and not quite as profligate.
       It is Yasin who flees to the Palace of Desire Alley of the title, to the house his biological mother owned. Though relatively little of the action in the novel takes place there, it is Yasin's confusion -- and that of his father and younger brother, Kamal, who also deal with some of the same issues -- that is central to the novel. The house, with its dubious history (to which Yasin adds several chapters) is far different from the staid family home on Palace Walk, but Egypt is also going through times of difficult change, far less firmly rooted in tradition now, but still uncertain of what the future possibly holds.
       Yasin takes after his father, and more than makes up for any new-found discretion and reserve on the part of the old man. Yasin disappoints his family by marrying neighbour-girl Maryam (Fahmy's love interest) -- but not before he engages in a truly shocking affair. Again, marriage isn't enough for his restless stirrings, and he winds up divorcing Maryam and marrying yet again -- even more unsuitably. His escapades go so far that he is nearly exiled to the distant countryside by his government employer, saved from that horrible fate only by his father's contacts and help. (Yasin is essentially never seen at work in the novel, and one of the book's glaring weaknesses is that it is almost unbelievable that Yasin could hold down this job in the first place.)
       Kamal, older now, and ready to begin his university studies when the novel opens, also comes into his own. He disappoints his father with his ambition to enroll in the Teachers Training College, rather than studying law or something else more promising. Al-Sayyid Ahmad warns him about his future prospects: "It's a miserable profession, which wins respect from no one." But Kamal is certain of his choice, and his father knows he can no longer impose his will on the boy.
       Only when Kamal publishes an essay on Darwin is his father truly outraged, but even then Kamal will not stray from the path he has chosen (deciding only to thereafter publish in a newspaper that would never fall into his father's hands). Devoted to philosophy, with religion ever less convincing (though he still firmly believes in a god -- though convinced: "what was true religion except science ?"), he knows he can't remain trapped in the limited world his parents hold onto as their truth:
He would say goodbye to the past with its deceitful dreams, false hopes, and profound pains.
       Among the profoundest pains is that of unrequited love. Kamal has a close group of friends with whom he spends much of his time, and he falls passionately in love with one of their sisters, Aïda. She, however, winds up with another. It is the one great love of Kamal's life, and after this he also begins drink alcohol (though in more moderation than his father and older brother), and begins to regularly seeks relief with a woman in the pleasure-district. (Here Mahfouz offers one too many coincidences, as there is yet again a woman shared by two of the family members.)
       The daughters of the household, Aisha and Khadija, now have several children, but their lives are not as central to the novel. The annoyingly determined Khadija makes life a bit difficult in her household, especially with her constant fights with her mother-in-law, but not that much of significance happens there -- until the end of the book.
       Palace of Desire closes with al-Sayyid Ahmad suffering a physical crisis. He's getting old, and his body threatens to give out. The family is gravely concerned, but al-Sayyid Ahmad survives. Crisis -- and mortality -- , however remain in the air: in the closing pages the Egyptian leader Sa'd Zaghlul dies, while a typhoid epidemic hits the Shawkat family in Sugar Street hard. As if that were not enough, Yasin's wife is in the midst of a difficult labour.

       Mahfouz continues his family saga well, though the stray storylines get a bit more frazzled. Yasin and Kamal's lives are well-related, and offer the most engaging sections, while al-Sayyid Ahmad's decline is also fairly well presented. In lingering over Kamal's love and disillusionment, Mahfouz is especially successful.
       The Shawkat family is less of a presence, and even Amina and the family home at Palace Walk are more background presences. The political change in Egypt also remains more peripheral, though Mahfouz does convey the consequences of a fast-modernizing society, with its different expectations and possibilities, on the various individuals well.
       Palace of Desire is enjoyable, but very much a middle-novel, demanding familiarity with the previous volume (as well as the promise of resolution to come).

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Palace of Desire: Reviews: Naguib Mahfouz: Other books by Naguib Mahfouz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz (نجيب محفوظ, Nagib Machfus) was born in 1911 and died in 2006 He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988.

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