This second volume of the Cairo Trilogy really captured my imagination - more so than Palace Walk, its predecessor. I think that's because, five years later in Mahfouz's epic story, the ignorant patriarchal tyranny of Al-Sayyid Ahmad is finally being challenged. Palace Walk, set before the 1919 Egyptian Revolution, is a novel about an odious father who rules his family like a corrupt king. Palace of Desire, set in 1923, reflects a time of change: in the background, it's a political one - and in the foreground, it's a subtle (but acute) domestic one.
Al-Sayidd Ahmad and the old-fashioned Islamic world he represents are the key reasons for this change. He himself remains totally unchanged, even by his advancing age: he still pursues young women like a deluded lech, he still treats his wife like a slave, he still treats his (now adult) children like abject minions. But this oppressive fatherhood is now beginning to reap its own rewards. Fahmy, the eldest son - having been driven to religious extremes by his father's interference - has been killed in an anti-British riot. Yasin, the second son, has inherited his father's womanising ways and causes regular drunken scandals with prostitutes. Khadija, the eldest daughter, has been married off by her father and fallen into bitter dispute with her incompatible mother-in-law. Aisha, the second daughter, has also been married to a man of her father's choosing and is seemingly happy - but fate ultimately decrees that her new family will be struck down by typhoid (paving the way for the third novel in this trilogy, "Sugar Street"). Kamal, the youngest son, is the only family member who eventually recognises - and questions - the destructive effect of his father's household and the archaic Muslim rules that govern it. Indeed, by the end of this book, he has renounced Islam... an astonishing transformation that really made me look back over the 1,000 pages of these first two volumes in a totally different light. Mahfouz has built up to this moment in incredible detail and when it arrives, you truly begin to appreciate what he's been trying to achieve all along: a steady drip-feed of emotions and ideas that build, morph and explode with all the weight of real life.
Kamal is the real hero of this book and his infatuation with Aida and the wealthy Shaddad family is unforgettable. This is unrequited love - and literary technique - at its very best. Mahfouz really does a sterling job with Kamal's heartbreak and the subsequent fallout from it: here, finally, is the first inkling that a new generation is on the rise, scrutinising the old Islamic values with a critical eye. Mahfouz captures this brilliantly when Kamal's parents chastise him for taking an interest in Darwin. Mentally addressing his mother, Kamal thinks: "Ignorance is your crime, ignorance... ignorance... ignorance. My father's the manifestation of ignorant harshness and you of ignorant tenderness. You're my link to the Stone Age."
As for the Black Swan translation? As with the first volume, at times it can read like a dry academic essay - at others, the basic meaning can get muddled. But for the most part I think it's a success, given that Arabic is so very different to English. (Consider, for example, that every consonant in Arabic can have three different meanings... and you begin to appreciate how hard it is to crowbar Arabic words into our language.)
Overall, I thought this book was excellent and it's criminal that the first English translation only appeared in 1991. It was written in 1957! Just goes to show how many literary heavyweights are out there, undiscovered by Western readers.