Book Review — Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street)

by Rachel S

I have had a long relationship with this particular book. It’s not a short volume, with three originally separate novels back-to-back in the same volume, totaling about 1313 pages. My only comment, for people daunted by this number, is that the endeavor is entirely worth it.

I found this particular copy at a used- and damaged-book sale on the American University in Cairo campus. Most of the books being sold on the cheap were older published works by the University Press. I’d seen references to Mahfouz in loads of places in Egypt up until that point, and other international students had talked about works that they had read. So I got very excited at the prospect of having all three books at once and immediately bought my adorably damaged copy (the back cover was a bit wrinkled and some pages are the wrong size, but nothing to make it illegible). This was in the late Spring of 2013, which tells you a lot about how fast I read for pleasure while I was a student.

Moving on, the story itself spans several decades and generations of a Cairo family, as they fall in love, marry, and both effect and are affected by the turbulence of Egyptian politics of the time. Something I really liked about the story was that it didn’t focus too much on dates — events of objective historical importance were dealt with through the frame of the character’s reaction to them, and time was marked by the distance between important events in the family’s life (death, birth, marriage, etc.). Time was also marked, for some characters more than others, in their feelings — their personal development as individuals within this family structure and within their rapidly changing society.

Let me say also, it took me a while to fall into the storytelling style of the author and subject. I’ve been very used to being presented with a clear conflict, a straight shot to a denouement and climax, and then some resolution. The path of this story is less clear, but no less engaging if you read it looking at the characters and their internal struggles instead of desperately searching for some overarching conflict. The focus here is really on the family and its members, and if you’re paying attention it’s golden. Suffice to say, I picked it up again at the halfway point a few weeks ago (it had taken me a year and a half to get through the first half, because I was otherwise obsessed with schoolwork), and had the time to really focus on what exactly I was reading. I was immediately re-hooked and finished it at an insane pace.

In summary, it’s a beautiful, thoroughly enjoyable look into a fictional account of Cairo and Egypt from the beginning to the middle of the 20th century. I’d recommend doing a little bit of cursory reading on the Egyptian political trajectory at the time though (there’s a chronology at the beginning), because the characters make frequent references to political figures throughout the books.

As always, comments or questions are welcome and desired!


The Details:

Mahfouz, Naguib. Trans. William Maynard Hutchins, Olive E. Kenny, Lorne M. Kenny, Angele Botros Samaan. The Cairo Trilogy. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press. 2001. ISBN: 977 424 688 8.

Separate Novels titled: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street.



Writer’s Notes:

On time this week~! My reading list right now is mostly Arabic literature and poetry in translation (my language skills are definitely not up to the task of translating such works), so expect more in this vein soon!