Charif Majdalani; Trans. Edward Gauvin
Imagine yourself transplanted to Lebanon in the early 1900s. You are a Westernized Lebanese, fluent in Arabic, English, and boast a smidgen of French. You decide to leave Lebanon and head to the Sudan where you become a translator for the British colonial administration. Your employment entails traipsing across deserts with British army officers; witnessing battles and tribal feuds; quelling rebellions; encountering a motley crew of Bedouins, tribal chieftains, and sheikhs with their respective entourages; negotiating agreements; sleeping under the stars; and interacting with Western military officials whose presence against the desert backdrop smacks of an absurdist drama. Along the way, you encounter a man who has dismantled a lavish palace in Tripoli and is transporting it piece by piece in a camel caravan. You eventually become the proud owner of this piecemeal palace and, after a series of detours and hiccups, you return to Lebanon with the bits and pieces of your palace in tow.
This is the highly imaginative setting for Charif Majdalani’s Moving the Palace. The narrator is the grandson of Samuel Ayad, our intrepid traveler who ostensibly relayed details of his adventures to his daughter who then relayed it to her son. The novel is a blend of historical fact and fiction, the narrator freely acknowledging he had to fill in gaps in the storyline and embellish details as necessary.
The novel is an absolute delight. The reader is transported to exotic locations and is introduced to a quirky set of characters at a pivotal moment in world history. As fascinating as that is, what really sustains reader interest is the narrator’s voice. This imaginative tale comes through the voice of Majdalani’s narrator who delights and amuses us with his dry, sardonic humor, with his exposure of the foibles and absurdities of human behavior, and with the manner in which he presents outlandish events in a matter-of-fact tone.
Majdalani’s strength and the strength of Edward Gauvin, the translator, lies in crafting flowing sentences that strongly evoke the topography and atmosphere of the Arab desert and its people. The story is told in lyrical, rhythmic sentences that mesmerize and sparkle with humor.
Very highly recommended.