If you’re anywhere near UC Irvine 2 p.m. today, you should go eat free food with the wonderfully erudite Lebanese novelist Charif Majdalani. If not, you can still read Majdalani’s Moving the Palace, as the award-winning Francophone Lebanese author is finally in English translation.
This review first appeared on Bookwitty, where you can also find a video interview with the author:
The humor that underpins Charif Majdalani’s Moving the Palace comes across so lyrically earnest that the tale might read as a straightforward adventure romance—if not for its titular palace, being moved in a thousand pieces through the desert.
This and other elements of high Orientalist-surrealism are less Lawrence of Arabia and more Terry Gilliam’s cult film Adventures of Baron Munchausen. But unlike Gilliam’s film, Moving the Palace takes care never to slip into slapstick, keeping up a royal manner much like that of its elderly Countess Raymonde Sayegh, who had “a positively deadpan sense of humor, but it took seventy-five years to notice.”
This delightful translation, masterfully rendered by Edward Gauvin, marks Majdalani’s first and long-awaited appearance in English. The celebrated Lebanese novelist, who writes in French, has been listed for a number of French prizes, including the Prix Femina and the Médicis, and this novel, Caravansérail in the original, won the 2007 Prix François Mauriac.
The story is narrated—or invented—by the grandson of its protagonist, a Lebanese adventurer named Samuel Ayyad. In Ayyad, we find a spy, a trader, and an art collector who is both opportunist trickster and well-mannered aristocrat.
Ayyad’s tale begins when he travels to Sudan, seeking work with the British and Egyptians who rule the country during the Mahdist uprising. While in the desert, bringing arms and gold to different leaders, Ayyad comes across a grand Libyan palace in a thousand pieces, being carried through the desert by a fellow Lebanese. This man, Shafik Abyad, couldn’t sell the palace in Tripoli, so he disassembled the palace’s walls, stairs, mirrors, and doors, set them on a caravan, and shopped them around to Saharan princes.
“And yet of course,” the narrator tells us, “a palace cannot be sold like a crate of fruit.” So after years of dragging around his absurd bounty, Shafik Abyad wants to abandon it in the desert. Instead, Ayyad buys it from him and carries the thousand-piece seraglio on camels, back to Khartoum.
Translation by camelback
The one thousand pieces hardly seems a coincidence, as Samuel Ayyad is carrier of a sort of 1,001 Nights-esque fantasy, hefting his disassembled story through the desert, to be reassembled elsewhere in a different context, an echo of The Nights’ movement from China and India to Arab lands, and from there to France.
Ayyad settles up with the British army in Khartoum, after which he wants to bring the palace-in-pieces back home to Beirut. But as World War I has kicked off, this won’t be easy. Ayyad does get the palace up the Nile, which “is naturally much easier than promenading it around on camelback across the savannah.” But the Ottoman Empire enters the war: his route is blocked.
Ayyad spends some time charming the Lebanese community in Cairo, including the aforementioned Countess Raymonde Sayegh. But he wants to go home. So Ayyad decides that, if he cannot cross the Mediterranean, he will go the long way: east and north through the Arabian Peninsula, past Damascus, and from there to the west, and home.
The British give Ayyad some measure of protection in exchange for a little work for the Empire. After that, all Ayyad has to do is get home with his thousand-piece palace and a few ancient stone statues of gods he’s acquired along the way. What could go wrong?
Elevating the extras from an Orientalist set
Majdalani’s absurd characters are never just archetypes. Instead, they are elevated by carefully etched details—stiff Englishmen are both jolly and cruel, changing in a twitch of the eye; an Egyptian corporal has a wonderfully inappropriate sense of humor; and a flighty Bedouin prince has fallen in love with a French archaeologist.
We briefly come across TE Lawrence himself, who cuts a particularly ridiculous figure. Ayyad “could not keep from thinking that Lawrence really didn’t look Arab at all, not that his costume didn’t become him, or made him look like an extra in an Orientalist set at the Cairo Opera—quite the opposite, he was even too handsome bathed in a whiteness that further refined his features, but his robe quite simply seemed too big for him.”
At one point in the journey, Ayyad’s caravan rides up to a stalled train full of Austrian and Ottoman officers and a few Austrian ladies. Although the two groups are technically enemies, they manage to entertain one another by exchanging tales about transported palaces.
The son of a Saudi chieftain who travels with Ayyad’s caravan tells a story of a Druze prince who “fell in love with a rococo marble parlor in a Damascus villa, bought it, had it dismantled and transported to his home in the mountains of Lebanon, where he ordered that an entire palace be built to serve as its setting.” An Austrian officer answers with a tale of a Salzburg aristocrat who was in love not with a mansion he found outside Florence, “but with the echo of a footfall on the terrace,” and so had the mansion dismantled and rebuilt near Salzburg, where the footfall didn’t sound the same. The frustrated aristocrat had dirt “brought in from Tuscany, Tuscan pines, Tuscan pebbles—but, the officer concludes, it was no good, the echo had remained in Italy.”
Ayyad may lose a few pieces of his palace along the way. But his journey is ultimately a success, as the story ends where it begins, with the grandson-narrator telling of how Samuel Ayyad stumbles upon the narrator’s grandmother back in Lebanon, and seduces her with his absurdly wondrous caravan.
Although Moving the Palace can be read anywhere, it would make an excellent summer beach read. In any event, it should savored while in a warm place, preferably on the sand, so each sentence can spread out, like a camel ambling across the desert.