Monday, 30 September 2013

My Mediterranean Reading Summer 2013: The Summary

Here in my corner the weather has turned autumnal, even prematurely hibernal. The summer is irrevocably over and on this last day of September My Mediterranean Reading Summer 2013 is going to an end, too. For four months I’ve been reading my way criss-cross through twenty-one countries around the Mediterranean Sea plus Palestine and Gibraltar, but although I found at least one novel for each country I couldn't read them all. The summer has been too short as always!

This bookish odyssey has been a very interesting experience for me. A welcome side-effect of it is that I had the pleasure of discovering some wonderful stories and authors on the way that otherwise might have completely slipped my attention. Some of the novels figuring on my list haven’t yet made it into the bookshops here in Graz and some never will because they aren’t to the taste of the average reader. Others are popular here and almost unheard of in the Anglo-American world.

Out of twenty-four novels I had to order about half and even that way some of them have been really hard to come by through my usual channels. A couple of books didn’t even make it on the list because I couldn’t get them at all like a novel by the Portuguese writer Helena Marques set in Malta. The only German edition of A deusa sentada is long out of print and unavailable in the libraries nearby. Well, the book has never been translated into English and I wouldn't blog about it, anyway.

Over the past weeks I reviewed most of the books which I thoroughly enjoyed and left others to write about later because they didn’t seem to fit in right then. My personal favourites of the summer have been The Calligrapher’s Secret by Rafik Shami, Small Wars by Sadie Jones and The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna. However, here’s the complete list of my Mediterranean reads including those five which remain for the time being on my pile of books to be read. Just follow the links to read my reviews!

Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho
Bosnia & Herzegovina
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
TBR: The Lady of the Shroud by Bram Stoker
The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay
TBR: Wild Mulberries by Iman Humaydan Younes
Israel and Palestine
TBR: Gold Dust by Ibrahim al-Koni
TBR: Sword & Scimetar by Simon Scarrow
TBR: The Pillar of Salt by Albert Memmi
What the Day Owes the Night by Yasmina Khadra
Horses of God by Mahi Binebine
The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán
Nada by Carmen Laforet

Friday, 27 September 2013

Book Review: The Sailor from Gibraltar by Marguerite Duras is not a sovereign country, I know, but unarguably the densely populated pene-exclave of the United Kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula deserves to be included in my list, if only for its geographical importance as the Gate to the Mediterranean Sea. Several authors have chosen Gibraltar as a setting for their works. Gil Baltrar by Jules Verne, The Innocent Abroad by Mark Twain and Scruffy by Paul Gallico are only three of the classics which I'd like to mention here. However, for my last review of My Mediterranean Reading Summer 2013 I chose a novel which has Gibraltar in its title, but follows its protagonists travelling onboard a yacht called Gibraltar and searching for a mysterious man from Gibraltar rather than being set in the town. The novel is The Sailor from Gibraltar by Marguerite Duras.

The writer and film director Marguerite Duras was born as Marguerite Donnadieu in Gia-Dinh close to Saigon, Vietnam (then French Indochina), in April 1914. After school she went to Paris, France, for her law studies which she finished in 1936. During World War II she worked for the French Resistance as a spy and in 1943 her first novel Les Impudents (The Impudent) was published under the pseudonym Marguerite Duras which she continued to use all her life. The Sea Wall (Un barrage contre le Pacifique) made her fame in 1950. The Sailor from Gibraltar (Le Marin de Gibraltar) was her fourth novel and came out two years later. Others of her important literary works are Hiroshima mon amour (1960), The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein (Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein: 1964), India Song (1976), Moderato Cantabile (1977), Savannah Bay (1982), The Lover (L’amant: 1984), The North China Lover (L'Amant de la Chine du Nord: 1991, and Writing (Écrire: 1993). Marguerite Duras died from throat cancer in Paris in March 1996.

The story of The Sailor from Gibraltar begins on a hot day in August 1947. The nameless narrator and his always optimistic as well as compliant fiancée Jacqueline are on holidays in Italy. A stonemason gives them a ride from Pisa to Florence on his truck and starts a conversation with the narrator who by and by reveals himself as a man fed up with virtually all aspects of his life. For eight years he has been copying birth and death certificates in the Colonial Ministry although he hates his job and loathes his colleagues. For two years he has been together with Jacqueline and it seems natural to him that eventually they’ll get married. The stonemason encourages him to give up his job and be happy. He invites him to come to Rocca, a village at the seaside, and enjoy life, but the narrator refuses. The scorching heat in Florence makes him listless and thoughtful. Lazing in a café while his fiancée roams the city the narrator begins to reconsider his relationship with Jacqueline and he fully realizes that he doesn’t love her. The couple moves on to Rocca to visit the stonemason and the narrator finally takes his life into his own hands. To begin with he breaks up with Jacqueline. Then he meets the wealthy and beautiful widow Anna who is staying onboard her yacht, the Gibraltar, anchored off the Tuscan coast. It is said that she has been travelling the world for years in search of the man she loves, a murderer on the run whom Anna simply calls the sailor from Gibraltar. The narrator falls for the enigmatic American and becomes her lover. He wants to be with her and asks her to take her onboard as a member of the crew which implies that he gives up his job at the Colonial Ministry in Paris. Both know that it can only be a temporary affair which will end when they find the sailor from Gibraltar and yet he’s ready to sacrifice everything. They cruise the Mediterranean Sea and then move on to the Atlantic Ocean stopping by Tanger in Morocco, Abidjan in Ivory Coast, and Leopoldville, now Kinshasa in Zaire. They even venture into the jungles of the Congo, but the mysterious sailor from Gibraltar is always one step ahead of them.

The plot of The Sailor from Gibraltar is simple and devised into two parts. The shorter first part is dedicated to the narrator, his personal history and everything that leads to the break-up with his fiancée. The much longer second part of the novel is widely dominated by a monotonous travel onboard the yacht with interludes of picturesque landscapes and buzzing life in different harbours. In fact, there isn’t much going on in this novel. Marguerite Duras is more interested in the characters of the narrator and Anna, two lonely creatures running after happiness and love, than in constructing an intricate and thrilling story. The travel serves just as the perfect metaphor for life itself. The yearning of the protagonists gives room for many philosophical observations and conversations, and yet, as often in real life much remains unsaid and hazy between the two. The writer’s language and style are easy to follow. At the same time they are poetic and full of symbolism which is quite obvious in some cases and hidden in others.

Some may find The Sailor from Gibraltar by Marguerite Duras boring, while others will love it like I did. Novels with a philosophical turn use to be very much in my line and I didn’t miss the action at all. My judgement: Highly recommended.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Book Review: The Calligrapher's Secret by Rafik Schami is often on the news these days, but only when new atrocities of the dictatorial regime against civilians become known or because heads of state disagree on what should be done to end the senseless slaughtering. Ever since the last days of the Ottoman Empire the Middle East has been a region of unrest, and yet, Syria remained an important centre of Arabic culture, above all the big cities Damascus and Aleppo. Allow me to once again turn back time and to take you to Damascus in the 1940s and 1950s with my review of The Calligrapher's Secret by Rafik Schami.

Rafik Schami (رفيق شامي) means friend from Damascus and is the penname of Suheil Fadél (سهيل فاضل). The writer in German (and in the early stages in Arabic, too) was born in Damascus, Syria, in June 1946. At the age of twenty he co-founded and ran the wall news-sheet Al-Muntalek in Damascus which was banned in 1970. The following year Rafik Schami went to Germany where he pursued doctoral studies in chemistry while doing unskilled work for a living and writing fiction in his spare time. Soon his writings (among them also tales for children) were published and won several literary awards which allowed him to become a fulltime writer in 1982. Despite his success in German-speaking countries only few of his works have been translated into English like for instance A Handful of Stars (Eine Hand voller Sterne: 1987), Damascus Nights (Erzähler der Nacht: 1989) and The Dark Side of Love (Die dunkle Seite der Liebe: 2004). The novel The Calligrapher's Secret (Das Geheimnis des Kalligraphen) came out in 2008. Rafik Schami lives in Marnheim, Germany, with his family.

The Calligrapher's Secret begins in April 1957 on an unusually hot morning when rumour spreads in the streets of Damascus that Noura, the beautiful wife of the famous and rich calligrapher Hamid Farsi, has run away. In an Arabic, more precisely a Muslim environment this is a life-threatening crime for a woman to commit, even more so in the novel’s time period. People say that Noura felt insulted by the ardent love letters from Nasri Abbani which the womanizer known all over town and almost illiterate had ordered from her unknowing husband to seduce her. The First Kernel of the Truth behind the whole story lies in the lives of the protagonists. There is Noura, of course. She is the daughter of the respected, well-read and fairly modern imam Sheikh Rami Arabi who allowed her to go to school and to become a dressmaker. When Noura was about eighteen, she entered into an arranged marriage with Hamid Farsi. Restricted to house and yard like any good Muslim wife, she lived lonely and boring years until she met Salman, her husband’s apprentice and errand-boy. Salman is the son of a poor Christian family living in the Grace and Favour Yard in the Christian quarter of Damascus. Already as a child he began to support his sick mother and to protect her from her violet husband. He worked as a waiter in Karam’s café until several years later when he got a position as Hamid Farsi’s apprentice with the help of his boss. Noura and Salman fell in love virtually at first sight and began a secret as well as dangerous affair. The Second Kernel of the Truth leading to the disgrace and subsequent fall of Hamid Farsi lies in his passion for Arabic calligraphy and his attempt to reform the script. He goes about the modernisation with so much zeal that he is blind for the danger arising from religious fanatics who call themselves “The Pure Ones”. Only little by little the role of each one of the novel’s characters in the course of events is revealed.

It’s a complex and interlocked story which Rafik Schami unfolds in The Calligrapher's Secret. The plot is so rich and varying that it would have justified even more pages to develop, especially in the second half of the novel which feels a bit cursory. The book is a little different from what we are used to today, since its author isn’t just a novelist, but a story-teller who combines the best of Arabic oral tradition and western literary skill. Language and style are modern and accessible. Of course, I read the original German version of the book, but it is said that its English translation by Anthea Bell is excellent. The setting gives the novel the touch of a fairy-tale from the Arabian Nights. At the same time Rafik Schami isn’t sparing of criticism. The novel’s world is far from perfect. Intelligent women are forced into the roles of subdued wives who are excluded from society and life altogether. Men are discontent with what they believe to be expected of them or they are confused by the fact that neither they nor their wives are happy. Traditions are held in high esteem and even small changes are seen as threats to cultural identity and true faith. In this very realistic world of the past (which could just as well be the present) reformers have a difficult, even dangerous life.

I passed a good time reading The Calligrapher's Secret. Someone who looks for a sentimental love story or for an exciting mystery may be disappointed although the novel includes some elements of both. For me it has been a very enjoyable read which helped me to understand the Arabic mind a little better. I invite you to discover the stories of Noura, Salman, Hamid, Nasri, Karam and all the others who populate Rafik Schami’s novelistic Damascus. It's worth the time.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Book Review: The Courilof Affair by Irène Némirovsky is a huge country with a rich history. Lamentably, it has also been a history of recurring violence. Already before the Russian revolution of 1917 Communist and other activists used terrorism as a means to force political change and the tsarist government answered all those attempts with rigorous actions tightening its grip on the population. Outside Russia little is known today of those forerunners of the revolution and the victims on either side. I think that The Courilof Affair by Irène Némirovsky is an excellent novel to shed a little bit of light on this forgotten period of history.

Irène Némirovsky was born in February 1903 in Kiev, then Russia, now Ukraine. When she was fourteen, she and her wealthy family fled from the terrors of the October Revolution raging in the tsarist capital St. Petersburg and settled down in France two years later. Irène Némirovsky studied literature at Sorbonne University, while already working on her career as a writer. After several short stories and novellas, the author’s first novel, The Misunderstanding (Le Malentendu), was published in 1926. The best-selling novels David Golder and Le Bal followed in 1929 and 1930 respectively. Until Nazi-Germany invaded France in 1940 the prolific writer, who was refused naturalization due to her Jewish origins, brought out a new novel almost every year, one of them The Courilof Affair (L’affaire Courilof) in 1933. Irène Némirovsky continued writing until she was arrested by French police and deported to Auschwitz where she died from typhus in August 1942. Several of her works have been published posthumously, among them the biography A Life of Chekhov (La vie de Tchekhov: 1946) and her most famous, yet unfinished work Suite française (2004). 

The Courilof Affair is a fictitious novel based on real events of Russian history. In 1931 the first-person narrator León M., who lives in Nice, France, and faces death from pulmonary tuberculosis, feels the urge to write down the true account of a fatal bomb attack in St. Petersburg in which he was involved in 1903. He is the son of Russian revolutionaries deported to Siberia, but grew up in exile in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was raised to be a revolutionary and an assassin. In January 1903 León M. is twenty-two and the revolutionary committee to which his mother belonged until her death more than ten years earlier charges him with the liquidation of Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, the much despised Minister of Education under the last Russian Tsar Nikolai II. He travels to Kiev to meet Fanny who is his liaison with the local revolutionaries and full of hatred against the ruling classes. At Easter they move on to St. Petersburg together where he is supposed to spy out Courilof and to wait for further instructions. He lives under the name of Marcel Legrand, a doctor of medicine from Geneva, and goes into service with Courilof for the summer. Soon León M. learns that the minister is not only a feared, but also a hopelessly ill man who is the target of political intrigues at court. The more he knows about the real Courilof the more he perceives him as a human being, moreover as just another poor fool like everybody else and one whom he likes in a way. By the time when the date for the assassination is finally fixed, he’s in inner conflict about his task, but there are still a few months left to sort things out.

To write the invented autobiography of a political assassin in tsarist Russia without demonizing or canonizing anybody along the way is a challenge which Irène Némirovsky mastered brilliantly in The Courilof Affair. The first-person narrator isn’t emotional about the events which he unfolds. On the contrary, he – thus the author as his mastermind in the background – tells the whole story in the matter-of-fact language of someone who has long done with the past. The depicted characters are human beings with strengths and weaknesses like people in the real world around us. They have hopes and fears, they have desires and aversions, they have a conscience and they have a past which moulded them. Each one of them acts according to his or her nature and knowledge. The atmosphere of tsarist St. Petersburg just after 1900 feels very authentic and the plot which is modelled after history seems very realistic.

All things considered, The Courilof Affair by Irène Némirovsky has been an interesting and rewarding read. It’s the author’s sixth novel and not her most famous one, but it’s the only one which I had the pleasure to read so far. I put her other works on my list of books to read although I have no idea when I’ll get to them. So many books, so little time! In any case, Irène Némirovsky deserves more room in my shelves. She was a great author. How many more wonderful novels could she have finished, hadn’t she been deported to Auschwitz by the blind followers of fanatics and hadn't she died a senseless death in the concentration camp like too many others.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Book Review: The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna is the newest member state of the European Union (since July 2013) and a young country altogether. Independence dates back only to 1991 and wasn't gained easily. Unlike in the case of Slovenia, the government of Yugoslavia wasn't willing to let the country leave the federation without fighting. Combats between Croatian and Yugoslav units reinforced by local Serbs went on until 1992 and escalated in the genocidal war in Bosnia and Herzegovina including adjacent areas. Peace wasn't restored until 1995. For today's review I picked the novel The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna which deals with Croatia's recent history.

Aminatta Forna was born in Glasgow, Scotland, UK, in 1964 and grew up in her father's country Sierra Leone as well as in Britain. After her law studies in London and Berkeley, USA, she worked as a journalist for the BBC. In her first book the author The Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter's Memoir (2002) investigated the tragic events leading to her father's hanging for treason in 1975. Following this first success, Aminatta Forna turned to fiction writing and brought out the award-winning novels Ancester Stones (2006) and The Memory of Love (2010). Her latest published work is The Hired Man (2013) which has been received with much acclaim as well. She lives in London with her husband and works as a Professor of Creative Writing.

The scene of The Hired Man is the fictitious town of Gost which owes its name to the fact that the word means ‘guest’ in Croatian. It's a quiet place on the outskirts of the town somewhere in the mountains of Croatia and small enough for people to all know each other. So it's no wonder that in the summer of 2007 the arrival of the Englishwoman Laura and her teenage children Matthew and Grace is noticed and talked about at once. When the first-person-narrator Duro Kolak returns from hunting in the forests with his two dogs, he is surprised to meet them in ‘the blue house’ as he calls it. His cottage is next door, but he had no idea that the deserted and decayed house had been sold. Since Laura doesn’t speak Croatian, Duro offers to help her with all the necessary repairs. For him, a 46-year-old unmarried man who makes his living with odd jobs, it’s a welcome opportunity to earn money although it turns out later that he also has other reasons to work up the place which he has known since his childhood. He takes care that Laura discovers the mosaic on the façade – the work of his vanished friend Anka – which had been plastered and whitewashed years before, so she and her daughter will bring it back to light. And just as the ‘red-bodied bird, golden plumed, dragging a golden tail’ emerges little by little from its cover, so does the past of Duro, of the inhabitants of the blue house and of Croatia which annoys many people in town, most of all Duro’s now despised boyhood friends Krešimir and Fabjan who are the last remaining of ‘the old crowd’.

In a simple language Aminatta Forna evokes the peaceful atmosphere of a typical little town tucked away in the Croatian mountains which is ever more often replaced by the powerful memories of The Hired Man who saw and had his share in the horrors of war. In Duro’s mind the events of the past are still more present than everything that happens during the weeks working on the house and the author emphasizes this fact by telling his memories in historical present and using the past tense for current events. With great skill Aminatta Forna manages to constantly heighten suspense until the story of the deserted blue house and the fate of all those people who disappeared from Gost over night and without trace is finally revealed. It required some research to write this book and as far as I can judge it, the writer did a very good job there.

Being Austrian the Balkan Wars of the 1990s are still quite fresh in my memory. At the time all media covered the fights and atrocities every day and many refugees came to my country, above all Bosnians who then settled down here for good. Twenty years later most of what happened lies covered under the thin blanket of daily routine and in many places like Gost the enemies of yesterday live together with terrible memories lurking in the backs of their minds. I think that it’s important to remember what blind (national or religious) fanaticism, especially in combination with opportunism or predatoriness, can lead to. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna is an excellent novel to remind us of the dark sides of the human soul and their repercussions in world history.