cover image Palace of Desire

Palace of Desire

Naguib Mahfouz, Najib Mahfuz. Doubleday Books, $22.95 (422pp) ISBN 978-0-385-26467-9

A sanctimonious tyrant of a father discovers that his mistress, whom he keeps on a houseboat, is secretly married to his dissolute, just-divorced son. Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mahfouz pulls off a daring plot with gleeful dramatic irony in this, the second volume of his Cairo Trilogy. Al-Sayyid Ahmad, the bullying, pompous, belching, self-adoring patriarch first met in Palace Walk , reduces wife Amina to a tireless domestic beast of burden given to ``angry spells.'' Another son, sensitive idealist Kamal, who idolizes the father he fears, plays out a mad, unrequited, pathetic crush on a haughty aristocratic woman. The narrative simmers with domestic turmoil, feuding in-laws, political talk of Egypt's quest for independence in the 1920s, women in a male-dominated society committing acts of self-assertion. A masterpiece, albeit a wordy, very leisurely one, this family saga is well served by a scintillating translation that exposes English-language readers to an Egyptian Balzac. (Jan.)