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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Palm House

Tarek Eltayeb

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Title: The Palm House
Author: Tarek Eltayeb
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 286 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Palm House - US
The Palm House - UK
The Palm House - Canada
The Palm House - India
Das Palmenhaus - Deutschland
  • Arabic title: بيت النخيل
  • Translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid and quite charming novel of an unusual life

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Palm House is narrated by Hamza. Born in Sudan, he moved to Vienna, Austria, in 1992; his account begins after he has been there for five years, a new stage in his life now beginning when he meets a young Austrian woman, Sandra. Practically the first thing Sandra does is introduce him to the elaborate Palmenhaus-greenhouse in the gardens of Schloß Schönbrunn -- the 'palm house' of the title. He actually only finds a single palm tree there, but it's nevertheless a piece and reminder of home he's long longed for; visiting the Palm House soon becomes part of his routine.
       Though he's held several jobs over the years Hamza currently gets by in the thankless (and not well-remunerated) job of street newspaper vendor (a familiar sight on Vienna's streets). He lives in a cold room -- though he has decorated it with a wallpaper with a palm tree-motif -- and his only companion is a very docile cat, Hakima, which he takes with him almost everywhere.
       When Hamza first meets Sandra he admits he is afraid of time:

Time can be treacherous. It turns on me every few months and changes my life without a word of warning. I've lived through many different times.
       The novel describes his relationship with Sandra, which blossoms into a romance, and as they get closer and get to know each other better he recounts his own long journey to this point -- the many different times he's lived through -- to her. Time does continues to turn on him, but at least for most of the novel it does so for the better.
       Hamza has truly been unrooted: the town where he was born, Wad al-Nar, no longer exists, and his mother and sisters are dead. He describes returning to the place after it had been reduced to little more than a wasteland -- and then finally leaving it behind him. Hamza didn't really have anywhere to go, but he makes his way in the world, somehow or other. There are terrible detours along the way, most notably his being forcefully conscripted into the army and then sent to the frontlines, to fight the rebels in the south of the country. Ironically, he is well-treated by his southern captors, who recognize the absurdity of the situation, but then jailed and soon facing a court martial when he returns north again.
       Eventually Hamza makes his way to Egypt, and then finally on to Vienna. He encounters a variety of helpful people along the way, and the Sudanese community generally provides a support network of sorts, but Vienna, too, is no paradisiacal escape. As one friend warned him:
Vienna is beautiful, Hamza, but it's both Heaven and Hell. You'll have one portion of Heaven but two portions of Hell waiting for you there.
       The rather philosophical Hamza can roll with punches, however, and he doesn't complain about his lot. Parts of his past -- and especially the thought of his mother and sisters -- have left a mark on him, but he does not wallow in self-pity. He blossoms with Sandra, their romance developing slowly but steadily and happily.
       The Palm House could easily turn all maudlin: between lonely immigrant Hamza finding love and the cat he carries around with him it has elements that easily could come across as sappy. But Eltayeb handles these very well: the affair is perhaps a bit too good to be true, but overall feels quite convincing, as does, surprisingly, the use of the cat. Surprisingly, too, Eltayeb ties things up very well, forsaking the easy, sappy happy ending that readers may well have expected (and feared) and instead having time turn yet again on Hamza; Eltayeb pulls off this stunningly heartbreaking turn of events -- hinted at, but then coming with a one-two punch that still shocks -- very well, pulling back at just the right moment to avoid it being simply an entirely crushing blow, and -- though there is a touch of sappiness to the final scene as he paints it -- making for a satisfying conclusion.
       The Palm House is a rich novel of both Sudan in the time around the takeover by Omar al-Bashir as well as an immigrant's experiences in 1990s Austria, but Eltayeb is careful never to make the novel about these things. The Palm House is Hamza's story, and he does not concern himself that much with particulars of politics or the varieties of ethnic strife (whether of the sort in the Sudan, or the very different kind in Austria): they do touch him, and he does give examples, but these are also merely incidental, along with so much else in his life. So, for example, the ostensible reasons behind the devastation of Wad al-Nar and the slaughter of his family do not matter; what matters is the loss that he suffered and carries with him. Eltayeb's presentation -- in which personal details are often only revealed far along in the story, and often in little more than asides -- reinforces this idea very effectively.
       Although The Palm House features the same protagonist as Cities without Palms, it is not so much a sequel as an expansion of that earlier story, going much further than it; it is also a much more mature work, and a complete novel (where Cities without Palms still feels very tentative). It is an accomplished and well-crafted work, Eltayeb here showing himself to be a novelist, and not just someone with a story he wants to tell.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 May 2012

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The Palm House: Tarek Eltayeb: Other books by Tarek Eltayeb under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tarek Eltayeb (طارق الطيّب) was born to Sudanese parents in Egypt in 1959. He has lived in Austria since 1984.

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