The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz

The Cairo Trilogy is a series of three novels written and published by the Nobel prize winner for literature Naguib Mahfouz, initially in the Arabic language in the years 1956-1957. The three books: Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957) and Sugar Street (1957) were published later in English translation in the 1990s by Doubleday. The translators were William M. Hutchins and Olive Kenny (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street), Lorne Kenny (Palace of Desire) and Angele Botros Samaan (Sugar Street). It has since garnered a cult following, and overwhelming critical acclaim which has ensured Mahfouz’s works a longer life in the canon of the 20th century Arabic and global literature. The Cairo Trilogy, primarily, alongside his other courageous novels such as Children of Gebelawi and Midaq Alley, have earned him the Nobel prize. After my first reading of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, I was curious and tempted to read Mahfouz.

Though the two novelists share many commonalities in their writing, Arab culture and tradition, religion and politics; they have different motivations, impulses, viewpoints, prose style and storytelling techniques. Pamuk veers towards the postmodernism in his later and grander works; whereas Mahfouz is a traditional realist and existentialist author. Pamuk’s writing is also biographical, but in purely metaphysical terms, unlike Mahfouz, his meditations and inspiration of fantastical spirit are deeply rooted in his childhood. For instance, compare Hasan’s portrayal in My Name is Red and read his essay named Poetic Justice, which depicts a certain character named Hasan from his school days who was, in simple terms, antagonistic to Pamuk’s generosity of nature and poetic spirit. Politics is involved in their writings and forms a significant portion of their reflections. In my view, Pamuk is a writer who embraces the joys of plotting and storytelling above political themes. Mahfouz is, as every realist author, more profound in political and moral themes which make him join the ranks of Tolstoy and Dickens. Pamuk is a genius of playful narrative, stylistic techniques and imagery which physically occupies an essential place in his landscape; while Mahfouz is a straight-forward storyteller with sincerity and political meditations who doesn’t focus on the magical brilliance of the visual narrative techniques or postmodernism.

These differences don’t elevate one novelist more than the other in my view, because they belong to different eras, different reading lists, different political crisis and literary time zones. These writers must be appreciated for their significant contribution to bringing their culture, tradition and political and spiritual reflections on the global map of the literary world; which must have made them a pioneer of soft power in the eyes of the west. They also landed themselves into troubles due to the rigid structure of dictatorial rule in their country, which didn’t move an inch for freedom of speech or expression in the form of written or spoken word. For instance, Orhan Pamuk was charged with violating Article 301 of the Turkish penal code concerning his comments on the Armenian Massacre in an interview. Naguib Mahfouz’s support for freedom of speech in light of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses controversy led an extreme response of hate-mongering against him by a blind sheikh named Omar Abdul-Rahman and many, many others. One of the assassins stabbed Mahfouz in the neck; a grave injury from which he escaped alive but mostly led a feeble existence till his death after twelve years in the year 2006. One of many reasons, these courageous men deserve to be remembered for their courage and iconoclasm in the face of adverse hostility.

The first part of the series; Palace Walk is where the story begins with an excellent opening which throws the reader headlong into the tumult of the house in Palace Walk. As a matter of fact, in literature, the opening passages often form the tone, scenario and setting of the novel. For every opening is a kickstart to the narrative; throwing open a large window, which reveals a vista of the world which the characters inhabit, and their place in it. This novel, in its first instalment, does manage to create tension and gravity in the psychological space of the mother, Amina, as she first appears in the opening chapter. Amina is shown awaiting the arrival of Sayyid Ahmad, her tyrant husband, to step into the evening atmosphere of the house along with the noise of his portentous walking stick.

The translation is marvellous. Firstly, there are hardly any grammatical or clumsy spelling errors which are occasionally found in the translated novels. For example, the Penguin’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude, had an abundance of wrong spellings, grammatical mistakes such as improperly placed full stops, question marks and commas and semi-colons. Although the translation is commendable, the poor formatting and editorial work make it a less smooth and polished read as it should have been. Secondly, the prose is something to marvel at; it has a sense of originality and linguistic proficiency, which makes it appear to be a more authentic and original work in English. Thirdly, this might be a cliché, the covers form a fundamental part of the attractiveness of this novel. I have rarely seen, or perhaps never, such a beautiful cover (all three books) on a classic novel of any language which I have read. The publishers have done a commendable job in creating these beautiful portraits of Arabic landscape and making the titles typeset in calligraphy.

Now, to finally come back to the story itself. If you admire or revere the great Victorian novels such as Middlemarch, then you shouldn’t miss this trilogy of books. I would seriously urge you to read the first part and then take a break before the second if it proves to be a daunting task to peruse all three novels in one go. I would also argue, without being oppressively judgemental, that the sign of a great novel is that no matter how long it is, it mostly takes you a week to finish it despite the busy rollercoaster that our life has become in this modern era. Now exceptions aside, this rule wouldn’t ever apply to classics such as War and Peace. But for each instalment of this long trilogy, this rule applies severely because the novels are easy to read, lucid, fresh, elegant and poetically gripping.

The characters will take hold of your heart and get you through their miseries, triumphs and tragedies. It is a relief to take a break from western fiction and contemporary fiction which embraces the jolting music of chaos and to dive into a beautiful, and thrilling tale of real human characters. The happenings are complex and full of divisions and identity transformations, yet the language is smooth and elegant. This style of writing stands somewhere between the classical and contemporary fiction. Because the prose is neither too lyrical or obscure to classify itself as Dickensian or Tolstoyan. Nor it is disjointed or syntactically path-breaking as to be called purely contemporary or postmodernist fiction.

Heading towards the second novel of the trilogy, Palace of Desire; I had already high expectations and believed that the second novel would be the best in the whole series. It is perhaps because of my preconceived notion that the second and penultimate novel in a trilogy usually reaches the highest peak of stylistic symbolism, prose development, characterisation and storytelling. It was a great book, more carefully constructed and path-breaking than the first one. It had diminished its Dickensian storytelling to give way to dense meditations and heartburning weaknesses of characters, their frivolity, frailness, and unrealised evil behind their mistakes. If Palace Walk opened our eyes to a beautiful, sympathetic and engaging world of stories and incidents; Palace of Desire, ventured to do the complete opposite, it was a massive heartburn which delved deep into emotions of lust, vanity, sexual perversity, misogyny, inequality, prejudice and the tragic bestial emotions which lead us to commit fatal mistakes in life. The novel remains gripping and thrilling from the first page to the last and challenges the reader to dig deeper into the injustices of life from which no religion or justice comes to save you.

This sequel emphasised a transformation in Mahfouz’s writing from the Dickensian storytelling of countless happenings and turn of events to the tragic failures of humanity and the devilish tendencies of human desire. Moreover, the novel fulfils the reader’s expectation, it raises Kamal to a prominent position in the trilogy, and he remains one of the most brilliantly written characters of literature, in my mind. This novel shows Kamal’s entry to the real world and his disillusionment.

The final part of the book, Sugar Street does, in my view, what it couldn’t ever have done. This novel is a masterpiece from the beginning to the end. It is a book to cherish and live through. I hadn’t expected that this short novel of three hundred and thirty-one pages would turn out to be so intensely satisfying. There are no Dickensian elements in the story, the sentences are shorter, and the novel is quieter than its predecessors. It’s full of beautifully poetic meditations and reflections on life and death, ageing, love, disease, neglect, dysfunctionality, denigration and downfall, rise and collapse of political, social and familial structures of patriarchy and domination. The characters are incredibly realistic, and everyone in this book can be either liked or disliked in equal measures. We find ourselves sympathising with characters who have committed, during the course of their life, the gravest of errors.

Naguib Mahfouz’s illuminating wisdom and spiritual gaze are most masterfully manifest in this final novel, and the striking balance of originality and Tolstoyan inspiration is spellbinding. This novel is a gem. There were passages every few pages which broke my heart and made me close my eyes and sigh with pain and sense of intimate beauty. I loved this book, utterly moved by it and devastated. The sentences and the meditations have the energy and effect of a bullet shot in the heart. This book leaves you with a haunting baggage of memories for life. It is a spiritual journey to get through the final novel, which profoundly enlightens the sheer depth of humanity and the shallowness of it. The source of our empty existence is the primary focus of this work, and it asks an important question: why and for whom do we live this meaningless life for?

The Cairo trilogy embraces an era of fiction writing gathering its inspirations and techniques of writing from Charles Dickens and Tolstoy, moving on towards Marcel Proust and then, finally, choosing a path of existentialist writing on the grounds of Camus and Sartre; this trilogy is a masterful elegy on a haunting colonial metamorphosis of the Arab world and the sheer humanity which is continuously undermined by the cheap demagogues of the global media. A grand work which deserves to be ranked among the greatest classics of Russian literature. At a time, when the colonial and post-colonial identity is in crisis and humanity is split asunder through the prejudiced gaze of the media towards the Arab world, this book comes to rescue as an antidote. A must-read, a feast for the heart and the head.

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Oliver MukemuShyam Dixit Recent comment authors
Shyam Dixit
Shyam Dixit

Your review made me think to buy the books and start reading them right now… Review gives a miraculous insight and arouses the thirst to know more about the trilogy books…if review is this impressive, one could only imagine how great books would be .

Thanks man

Keep on reviewing more book and motivating us to read more and more such masterpieces

Shyam Dixit

Oliver Mukemu
Oliver Mukemu

Wonderfully written! I would love to read it a second, third, and fourth time and see if it would still have the magic I am feeling just now. I have not the books, but I feel like I have read them already by reading your review.