"You're drinking with Yasin. Your father's a shameless old man. What's genuine and what's not? Is there any relationship between reality and what's in our heads? What value does history have? What connection is there between the beloved Aïda and the pregnant Aïda? Why did you suffer this savage pain from which you've yet to recover? Laugh till you're exhausted."
Such are the reflections of young Kamal, the emerging Modernist of Cairo's Abd al-Jawad family whose idealistic spirit differentiates him, for a time, from the rest of his drama-ridden family. Yes, EPIC DRAMZ and MOAR EPIC DRAMZ. These people have Issues.
Palace of Desire has the misfortune of being Book #2 in a trilogy, which is never an easy position. Neither beginning nor end, Book #2 is essentially a bridge between them, continuing with characters and situations from the previous volume but being unable to properly conclude anything, as that is the job of Book #3. In this case, we have already established that the al-Jawad family is dysfunctional in many ways. The only thing for Palace of Desire to do is chronicle how the DRAMZ evolves as the characters age and Egyptian society continues to change in the 1920s.
Perhaps "evolves" is the wrong word. Taking place after the cataclysmic events of Palace Walk, the present feels like a lull. A few conversations between Kamal and his friends is all we hear of Egypt's political situation. Instead, the entire focus of Palace of Desire is the petty goings-on and generally idiotic behavior of the adult family members. Father Al-Sayyid Ahmad takes a young lute player as his mistress, dumps her, and Yavin proceeds to marry her after having an affair with her mother. Khadija seems to do nothing but start pointless quarrels with her mother-in-law. Kamal, the smartest and most levelheaded of the bunch, spends entire chapters rhapsodizing about the neo-Platonic perfection of his beloved Aïda. Really, the book could have lost about 200 pages.
I'm not quite sure what the point of all this is. Unless Mahouz intends to go out with a bang, in which case this is like the eye of the storm or. . . Wait, we have some guests here.
Greetings and rise up my fellow workers! As you may recall, I am Karega and this is Joe.
What is the meaning of this? You are interrupting a review of the book in which I, Al-Sayyid Ahmad, occupy the central role! And who's this?
I am Reb Smolinsky. The whole world would be in thick darkness if not for men like me who give their lives to spread the light of the Holy Torah. Respect me, impious goy!
WHAT?! Who are you people?! . . . Oh, by the light of heaven, what happened to you???
Oh that. I had a date with a shell. But don't worry! The Necronomicon has given me some real nifty powers. You oughta see this trick Ephraim Waite taught me.
I would hesitate to anger him, if I were you. Unless you wish to learn for yourself the horrors of the living prison you see before you, a terrible tragedy loosed upon this innocent young man by the corrupt forces of this so-called "democracy." But I digress. Joe and I have been sent here to bestow upon two deserving men the opportunity of a lifetime. Such upstanding pillars of the community as yourselves have truly earned no less.
You honor and illumine me. May God be generous to you, my good man!
I seize good luck by the horns! See how God rewards such years of learning as mine!
I'll tell it to you straight: Karega and I know of an organization in need of a good religious scholar. One of their primary texts is in Arabic so you Al-Sayyid Ahmad can help Reb Smolinsky out. And trust me the pay's real good. We're talking solid gold here.
At last! The riches shine from me! I am a person among people! Oh, see how God is good to a poor man of the Torah!
I find myself intrigued. Do go on.
Few men will ever get this chance. Our clients are highly selective and insist on a few simple preliminary measures before we can proceed.
Nothing to it. Just a few oaths. Basically you just swear to be loyal and keep your mouth shut. In exchange you get some American beachfront property and all the damn gold you want.
Joyful am I! To God I sing my praises! Two simple oaths I take. Yes, I swear my secrecy and loyalty.
Well, now, this is simpler than bedding a singer in the entertainment district. You have my word on both oaths as well.
But there's more! I hear you fellows have been on the lookout for some female companionship.
I have been advised by my physician to embark upon a more sedate life. However, I find myself unable to comply with such demands, as I am a young man yet!
Yes, yes, a new wife I need! A poor widowed scholar I am! For my study I need a good cook and a keeper of the house who does not nag or curse me out to the streets. I need a servant to support my holy labors. You give me this too? Oh glory! I get a good job and gold and now I help a woman get into Heaven. As the good Torah says, women can get into Heaven only because they are the wives and daughters of men.
That makes perfect sense, now that I think of it. Don't forget the other . . . services they provide us as well. Yes, indeed, women truly exist to make men glad.
All it requires is another oath that you will marry one their women and sire her children. With all this gold, Al-Sayyid-Ahmad, you can more than afford to maintain a second wife. Amina won't like it, but who cares about her opinion, right?
She told me herself that she has no opinions of her own. A most excellent wife she is!
How I envy you! Perhaps I will have such a wife as well.
So we're all on board here? Third oaths all around?
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.
Wha. . .?
. . .
Congratulations Al-Sayyid Ahmad and Reb Smolinsky! The Esoteric Order of Dagon greatly appreciates the work you will be doing as scholar and translator of the Necronomicon. And you're sure to love Innsmouth. It's quite a charming little place with plenty of fixer-uppers and lovely ocean views. Good luck!
Iä, Iä Cthulhu! Iä, Iä Dagon!
Yep. These women aren't going to put up with any of their shit that's for sure.
I have to say I rather do feel sorry for them . . . NOT.
The Cairo Trilogy read-along is being hosted by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos. Our schedule is:
December 26-27, 2010: Palace Walk
January 30-31, 2011: Palace of Desire
February 27-28, 2011: Sugar Street