Review: Mafouz’s The Palace Walk

One among many reviews originally posted to livejournal.

Palace Walk: The Cairo Trilogy, Volume 1
Nagib Mafouz

The Palace Walk is wonderful novel.  In the translation published by the Everyman Library it is funny, biting and tragic with precise descriptions and deeply thought out characters. Though I haven’t read much of the great western popular novelists of the 19th century (meaning, Balzac, Dickens, etc) I get the impression that Mafouz was heavily influenced by them. This book is descriptive of setting and the psychological motives of the characters in a way that is totally out of fashion in today’s fiction. I ate up the long thought passages of the law student son in love with a neighbor he has barely seen, or the minute descriptions of the mother’s daily rituals. The characters slowly open to us through daily experience and then, without warning, a tragedy or celebration occurs. The pacing and writing make for a book that hits that sweet spot between well written and highly readable. Unlike so many serious modern authors, reading Mafouz is not work, but it isn’t candy like some of the other trash I have been reading lately.


People’s reactions to Mafouz while I lived in Cairo were interesting. First, they are surprised I have even heard of him. Then, they talk about the movies. In my experience, odds are they haven’t read him. While there, I heard Mafouz described as a national hero, and as anti-Islam. I have heard that he exaggerates the traits of Egyptians, that he is the greatest Arabic novelist of all time and that he is boring. I can’t really speak to whether or not he exaggerates the traits of Egyptians, I imagine he does, but I do think he is one of the best novelists I have read.


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