1950s Books in Translation Chunkster Classics Historical Fiction Nobel Prize Recommended books

Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

 Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988

Translated from the Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E.Kenny

Palace Walk is the first book in the Cairo trilogy, which is normally considered to be Naguib Mahfouz’s greatest achievement. It became a best seller in the Arab world on its release in 1956, but also enjoyed worldwide success, selling 250,000 copies in America.

The book is set in Egypt and describes the life of the Al Jawad family. Every aspect of their day is described in minute detail and so we learn exactly what life was like for the middle-class shopkeeper and his family. The book begins in 1917 and focuses on the complex task of finding someone suitable to marry each of the children.

Men play the dominant role in the household, using the words of the Qur’an to decide the most appropriate course of action. The women in the book were oppressed and spent most of their time shut inside, but at no point did this feel wrong to me. The book made me understand why this society worked in the way it did and at some points I was envious of their tight-knit community and the way the women were so close to each other.

No woman was anything more than a body to him. All the same, he would not bow his head before that body unless he found it truly worthy of being seen, touched, smelled, tasted and heard. It was lust, yes, but not bestial or blind. It had been refined by a craft that was at least partially an art, setting his lust in a framework of delight, humor and good cheer. Nothing was so like his his lust as his body, since both were huge and powerful, qualities that bring to mind roughness and savagery. Yet both concealed within them grace, delicacy, and affection, even though he might intentionally cloak these characteristics at times with sternness and severity.

I loved reading about the complex marriage negotiations and the way the household was run, but the text was so rich with detail that I found I could rarely read more than about twenty pages a day. This meant that it took me about six weeks to read the first 300 pages.

At about this point the style of the book changed, the pace picked up and I flew through the remaining 200 pages in just two nights. WWI brought British occupation to Egypt, changing the lives of the household completely. Seeing fear and tragedy brought to a family I knew so well made the impact much greater.

Palace Walk gives an impressive insight into Egyptian life. I loved the characters and the way I came to understand their very different way of living. I finished this book knowing a lot more about Egyptian history, but also feeling a little bit wiser and more tolerant. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

Highly recommended.

Have you read The Cairo Trilogy? Are the other books in the trilogy similar in style/pace?

Do you recommend any of Naguib Mahfouz’s other books?

Books in Translation Nobel Prize

Seeing – Jose Saramago

Blindness is one of my favourite books, so I was intrigued by its sequel, Seeing.

Seeing is set in the city that was affected by the blindness epidemic four year ago. The city holds an election, but when the votes are counted 70% of them are blank. They hold another election the following week and this time 80% of the votes are blank. For some bizarre reason (that I couldn’t grasp) the authorities panic, declare a state of emergency and all hell breaks loose.

It pains me to say this about an author I love, but I’m afraid I couldn’t finish Seeing. It started off reasonably well as I’m already used to Saramago’s unique writing style, lacking in punctuation.

…but we are dealing here with humans beings, and human beings are known universally as the only animals capable of lying, and while it is true that they sometimes lie out of fear and sometimes out of self-interest, they occasionally lie because they realise, just in time, that this is the only means available to them of defending the truth.

The book described the elections which were held on atmospheric rainy days, but as you may know I’m not a fan of politics and I think the political satire in this book just went over my head. I didn’t understand why a low turn out in an election led to the events and the lack of a central character meant that I didn’t really care what happened. We view the city almost from above and so the personal emotion that made Blindness so powerful was lacking.

The plot was meandering and had almost disappeared entirely by the 150 page mark. I started to skim read and found that nothing was happening many pages later. I looked up a few online reviews and discovered that other people had a similar problem – there was no plot in the second half of the book. The effort required to read it was too much and so I decided to give up.

Recommended to those who enjoy political satire.


Have you enjoyed any of Saramago’s lesser known works?

Or had similar problems with them?


1980s Nobel Prize

July’s People – Nadine Gordimer

 Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991

July’s People was our latest book group choice. Unfortunately I was unable to make the discussion, which is a shame as I think this is a book which benefits from being discussed.

July’s People is set in South Africa. The book follows the Smales, a white couple and their three children, as they are rescued from the violence taking place in their city. Their servant, July, takes the family back to his native village where they have to learn to cope in a world very different to the one they have left. The small rural community uses little money, finding everything they need in the forest. The Smales have to adjust to the reversal of power, relying on the black community to both  protect and provide for them. The book gives a fascinating insight into the difference between the black and white communities of South Africa and the delicate relationship between the two.

Unfortunately July’s People wasn’t an easy read. The prose was confusing and this meant that I often has to re-read entire sections in order to work out what was happening. There were no speech marks so it was difficult to tell who was speaking – sometimes the speaker even switched mid-line. This meant that I found myself concentrating on the words rather than what was happening. The effort it took to understand each page meant that any emotion that might have been present was removed. I felt very detached from all the characters and because I often didn’t know who was talking they lacked a unique voice, all seeming to merge into one. I found myself having to invent their feelings based on the situation, but this felt fake as I don’t really know how things must have been for them.

The premise for this book is fantastic, but the complexity of the prose ruined it for me.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys studying books rather than reading them.

The other members of the book group seemed to enjoy this book much more than me and they also found out more about the background of this book. I recommend you read their insightful reviews:

Kim’s Review, Simon’s review, Claire’s review, Polly’s Review

Have you read anything by Nadine Gordimer?

Are all her books difficult to understand?

Interview Nobel Prize Other Weekly Geeks

Some interesting things about José Saramago

This week’s Weekly Geek task is to find out some interesting facts about your favourite author. I wasn’t sure whether I’d participate, but once I started looking up José Saramago I couldn’t stop – he is such an interesting man!


Portuguese author José Saramago was born in 1922 into a family of landless peasants. Their surname was De Sousa, but an error in registering his birth meant that his father’s nickname ‘Saramago’ was accidentally added to his birth certificate. The drunken registrar also wrote his birth date wrong on the form  – meaning his official birth date is two days after his real one!

Saramago is proud of his impoverished background:

“If my grandfather had been a rich landowner and not an illiterate pig breeder, I wouldn’t be the man I am today,”

At the age of 2 Saramago’s family moved from their small village to the city of Lisbon where his father became a policeman. This failed to improve their financial situation and the family had to pawn their warm blankets to have enough money to survive.

At 13, Saramago started at a vocational school, where he trained to be a car mechanic. He didn’t own any books, but his love of reading meant that he often went to the library after studying.

In 1947 his first book The Land of Sin was published, but it wasn’t until 1982 that he finally acheived critical acclaim for his book Baltasar and Blimunda.

Saramago is a member of the communist party and a proclaimed atheist. His views have caused controversy in the strongly Catholic country of Portugal and on the publication of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ in 1991 he was forced to move to the Canary Islands.

He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, but described winning as not being very important.

He is often described as being cold,” “arrogant,” and “unsympathetic.” but when questioned about his attitude Saramago replied:

“I am not a bad person,”  “I hurt only with my tongue!”

I love Saramago’s writing. If you haven’t read any of his books then I highly recommend you try Blindness.

Do you love Saramago’s books?

2000 - 2007 Books in Translation Nobel Prize

Snow – Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006

Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely

We don’t get much snow in England, so the moment I saw the first few flakes falling I decided it was time to dig this book out of my TBR pile. I am really pleased that I did as this is the perfect read for a cold Winter’s day. The icy atmosphere is prevalent throughout and having a layer of snow outside my window increased my enjoyment of this book.

If he hadn’t been so tired, if he’d paid more attention to the snowflakes swirling out of the sky like feathers, he might have realised that he was travelling straight into a blizzard; he might have seen from the start that he’d set out on a journey that would change his life for ever; he might have turned back.

Snow begins with a poet returning to Turkey after living in exile for twelve years in Germany. He travels to the remote town of Kars, where he poses as a journalist supposedly investigating the large number of suicides that have occurred there recently.

I loved the first third of the book – the character development, plot foreshadowing and snowy atmosphere created the perfect opening. Unfortunately the book went downhill for me in the middle, as it started to focus on politics and religious debate – subjects which I don’t enjoy reading about.

This is a very well written book, with a complex, multi-layered narrative. It used some interesting plot devices, including the introduction of the author, Orhan Pamuk, as a character. I’m sure this is a book which others would enjoy reading again and again.

I noticed many similarities with 2666, so I’m sure that if you enjoyed one book then you’d like the other. I’d love to know if Bolaño had read this before writing 2666, as certain aspects, especially the large number of deaths in a remote town, were very similar.

Overall, I’m really pleased that I read this book and even though my eyes started to glaze over when I read some of political discussion there was more than enough to keep me interested.

I recommend this book to all lovers of literary fiction, particularly those who enjoy political discussion.


Have you read anything written by Orhan Pamuk?

1940s Books in Translation Historical Fiction Nobel Prize

The Dwarf – Pär Lagerkvist

 Pär Lagerkvist won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951

Translated from the Swedish by Alexandra Dick

Regular readers of my blog may remember the wonderful post, Recommendations from a non-blogger, written by Heidi. In the post Heidi recommended  The Dwarf  by Pär Lagerkvist, which I have never seen mentioned in the blogging world, so was keen to give it a try.

The Dwarf  is set in an Italian City during the Renaissance. The central character is just 26 inches high and is a servant to the Prince. The story follows them as they are drawn in to war and have to deal with death, disease and betrayal.

The Dwarf is probably the most miserable, bitter and twisted character I have ever read about. He seems to be dissatisfied with every aspect of his life – his anger bubbling through onto every page.

It is my fate that I hate my own people. My race is detestable to me. But I hate myself too. I eat my own splenetic flesh. I drink my own poisoned blood.

This made it very different from any other book I’ve read. His bleak outlook on the world meant that he was a very hard character to like and I had little sympathy for him, but despite this I was fascinated by his story. I loved the historical detail about life in an Italian court and found the attitudes of the people really interesting.

This is a quick, easy book to read, but it is packed with messages about the nature of society and the evil that is lurking within us all.



Have you read any books written by Pär Lagerkvist?