PALACE OF DESIRE

The Cairo Trilogy II

By Naguib Mahfouz

Translated from the Arabic by

William Maynard Hutchins, Lorne M. Kenny and Olive E. Kenny

Doubleday. 422 pp. $22.95

ALTHOUGH Naguib Mahfouz's novel, Palace of Desire, is set in the 1920s, this is not the "roaring twenties" of jazz bands, flappers, Prohibition gangsters and transatlantic flights. Cairo, and in particular, the Gamaliyya, the heart of old Cairo, knows nothing of such things. Its inhabitants live in the shadow of the Middle Ages, their houses and shops crowded in a labyrinth of dark, narrow alleys that run between the mosques and tombs of the Mamelukes. Men rarely have occasion to leave the quarter they were born in, while respectable women are mostly confined to their houses in accordance with the dictates of Islam and sentiments of family honor. Family life is an enclosed and private affair.

However, there are places like the Wagh al-Birka where men can escape their families and find more public pleasures. "Lamps mounted above the doors of the brothels and the coffee houses gave off a brilliant light in which accumulated the clouds of smoke rising from incense burners and water pipes. Voices were blended and intermingled in a tumultuous swirl around which eddied laughter, shouts, the squeaking of doors and windows, piano and accordion music, rollicking handclaps, a policeman's bark, braying, grunts, coughs of hashish addicts and screams of drunkards, anonymous calls for help, raps of a stick, and singing by individuals and groups."

Palace of Desire, first published in Arabic in 1957, is the second volume in the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz's masterpiece, The Cairo Trilogy. (The first volume, Palace Walk, appeared in English last year.) Mahfouz's Cairo is a richly visualized place, a sister city to Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg and Dickens's London. "Palace of Desire," which sounds so glamorous, is really the name of a little alley in the heart of the Gamaliyya and the home of Yasin, one of the novel's protagonists.

However, desire (or shawq in Arabic), "a blind and merciless tyrant," does in fact dominate the lives of Yasin and his contemporaries. Yasin, an earthy and feckless character, follows the women, who waddle heavily shrouded in their long black robes, and he eyes their bottoms and lusts after them. When he seeks to make a respectable marriage and goes to present his suit to the mother of the girl, he falls for the mother, "for without meaning to, he observed the lines demarcating the divisions of her voluminous body. He could not help but marvel when her hips came into view, for their crest almost reached the middle of her back, while their bottom flowed down over her thighs. They were like inflated balloons." For a while, he forgets about marrying the girl. His father, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, likes big bottoms too; later, father and son find themselves competing for the favors of the same loose woman, Zanuba, the lute player. Abd al-Jawad and Yasin pursue carnality with a Dostoevskyan intensity (and surely there are conscious echoes of The Brothers Karamazov in their contest for Zanuba.)

After a chance encounter in the brothel quarter of Cairo, Yasin explains to his younger half-brother, Kamal, that angelic women do not exist. "Like your father, I love full hips. An angel with a heavy bottom would not be able to fly." But Kamal believes in "angels" and is the slave of his hopelessly idealistic love for Aida, an upper-class Westernized flirt. He moons soupily over the unrealistically ethereal image he has constructed for himself of this girl. Kamal's quest for the fulfillment of desire is as fated to disappointment as that of his father or his half-brother. His beloved marries someone from her own class and, on their wedding night, "Kamal suffered torments in the desert while they exchanged kisses in the bridal chamber like any other human beings. There would be sweaty sighs and then swooning as blood trickled out. A nightgown would slip away to reveal a mortal body."

The eroticism is the stronger for being hemmed in by compunction, shame and circumspection. Although Mahfouz is known to Egyptian schoolboys as "the sex teacher," the trilogy is only incidentally a text of initiation for the enquiring young, for Palace of Desire is, like its predecessor, a grand novel of ideas and shawq has also a spiritual sense. Mahfouz and the characters he has created are possessed by the desire to understand the great mysteries of life and especially the mysteries of time and change.

At its most profound level, Mahfouz's novel explores the processes of personal, historical and metaphysical change. Although Cairo knows nothing of the Jazz Age, it will not remain a medieval city forever. Everywhere there are hints of change. Al-Sayyid Ahmad has heard a new singer, Umm Kalthoum, on the radio, but he finds her too new-fangled. Plump women are going out of fashion among Cairo's upper class. Kamal introduces his shocked family to Darwin's irreligious ideas about evolution. Politicians agitate for Egypt's independence from Britain. The times are changing and Mahfouz's tormented characters change with them.

The book teems with shopkeepers, pimps and prostitutes, but despite his exploration of the low life Mahfouz shuns the Egyptian colloquial, regarding it as a disease of language. He wrote this work in a formal literary Arabic, which is faithfully and sometimes rather painfully reflected in the translation. Palace of Desire is an old-fashioned novel, and none the worse for that, being old-fashioned in its confidence, its richness and its seriousness. It is a marvelous read. Robert Irwin is the author of "The Middle East in the Middle Ages" and of several novels, of which the most recent is "The Mysteries of Algiers."