There aren’t many examples, but there are enough for there to be a distinct subgenre for obsessive colonial stories. While Moving the Palace, by Charif Majdalani and translated by Edward Gauvin, is not as harrowing as Heart of Darkness or Fitzcarraldo, it shares a similarly mad plot MacGuffin and features exotic locales. In this instance, the mad plot involves moving a building from Tripoli, piece by piece, all over Africa and the Middle East so that it can be rebuilt in Beirut.
An unnamed narrator begins his grandfather’s story with some background about how that illustrious ancestor, Samuel, got into the British Army in the early 1900s. After the Madhist War, the British Army desperately needed men who could speak English and Arabic fluently. (There are several cutting remarks about how artificially “virile” the Arabic spoken by the English officers is.) Samuel gets a job and is promptly sent to Khartoum. Meanwhile, another Lebanese man, Shafik, makes what seems to be a deal in Tripoli. Shafik buys a small palace in what turns out to be an undesirable location. So, he has the palace dismantled and hires a caravan to ship it south to try and sell it to a sub-Saharan prince or sultan.
The two men meet while Samuel is bribing local sultans to round up Madhists. Shafik has been lugging (or rather, his employees have been lugging) pieces of wood, stone, and other bits of palace all over the place. He just can’t sell the thing. Eventually, Samuel takes a liking to the palace and buys it, intending to rebuild it when he gets home to Beirut. He takes Shafik’s place as the man throwing money and spleen around trying to get every scrap of wood and stone to its destination.
With a bit more effort, this book could have been a hilarious picaresque. The humor falls short of this as Moving the Palace develops into more of an adventure story when Samuel and his palace get caught in the middle of World War I and the Arab Revolt. The tone of the book doesn’t help either. While the narrator captures some of his grandfathers frustrated doggedness, the book reads more like a piece of historical nonfiction. In spite of this, I was entertained—mostly by the setting. The years 1908 to 1916 between Sudan and Lebanon are rich ground for story and Majdalani does his setting justice.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 16 May 2017.