A God In Every Stone: A Novel by Kamila Shamsie

The city of Peshawar is located in Pakistan, 59.1 kilometers (approximately 36 miles) from the Torkham-Border Crossing into Afghanistan. It is at the end of the Khyber Pass which cuts through the Spin Ghar mountain range and connects the two nations. Until 1947 it was a part of British India. Go back even farther, c. 515 B.C., and the Persian Empire claimed the city. Kamila Shamsie layers over two thousand years of Peshawar’s history into her novel: A God In Every Stone.

Title:  A God In Every Stone:  A Novel

Author:  Kamila Shamsie

Publisher:  Bloomsbury, London (2014) / Atavist Books

ISBN:  978 1 9378 9430 6

 

AGodInEveryStoneThe city of Peshawar is  located in Pakistan, 59.1 kilometers (approximately 36 miles) from the Torkham-Border Crossing into Afghanistan.  It is at the end of the Khyber Pass which cuts through the Spin Ghar mountain range and connects the two nations. Until 1947 it was a part of British India. Go back even farther, c. 515 B.C., and the Persian Empire claimed the city.  Kamila Shamsie layers over two thousand years of Peshawar’s history into her novel: A God In Every Stone – by setting it in the period between WWI and the Partition of British India and by using the Persian Empire -(and the tale of Scylax, a hero who betrayed his king) to bookend her story.

It’s an ambitious novel.  Vivian Rose Spencer is sent by her father to his old friend, Tahsin Bey, to take part in an archeological dig in the Labraunda region (located in modern day Turkey).   It is 1914.  For Vivian the trip is marked by a series of firsts – first adventure away from home, first taste of independence, first archeological discovery & first love. Tahsin Bey, the man who will be the great love of Vivian Rose’s life, tells her the story of Scylax  of Caryanda. A sea Captain and Ancient Greek Historian, he is mentioned in Herodotus. In Tahsin Bey’s version of the tale the Persian King Darius I favored Scylax, the Greek explorer, and as a mark of his favor gave him a finely wrought silver crown of figs. But when Caryanda rose up against the Persians, Scylax betrayed his King and rebelled with his countrymen.* Tahsin Bey believes the crown exists and has spent his life searching for it.

And then WWI detonates and turns Labraunda into an idyllic interlude very different from everything that follows.  Vivian Rose returns home to London to nurse the wounded soldiers and we are introduced to Qayyum Gul, a Pashtun soldier, who travels to France as a part of the Indian Army.  He will eventually lose an eye in the Battle of Ypres and be sent home to Peshawar.  Vivian Rose, traumatized by the carnage of war she sees in the army hospital escapes back to India and archeology.  These two will be bound, completely unbeknownst to them, by their affection for an engaging and intelligent boy. Qayyum’s younger brother, Najeeb, who will become Vivian Rose’s student and protegé.

For the first time she gave him her full attention – a smiling boy with excellent but oddly pronounced English, as though most of his vocabulary came from books. He was dressed more formally than the day before in narrow black trousers, a white tunic, and a white turban with a grass stain which suggested he’d been standing on his head.

They turned into another lane and Najeeb said it was the Street of Partridge Lovers, and looked startled when she laughed.

– What else? Tell me all the street names!

– The Street of Dentists. The Street of Potters. The Street of Felt Caps. The Street of Silver. The Street of Money-Changers. The Street of Coppersmiths. The Street of Englishwomen.

– The Street of Englishwomen?

– They buy and sell Englishwomen there. We will avoid it.

– Take a detour through the Street of Inventive Guides if you must.

He looked delighted to be caught out, and she found she was delighted to have been teased.

 

All of which is only a very small part of a larger (and, in hindsight) messier plot that also includes the Khudai Khidmatgar or“Servants of God” – the Pashtun Liberation Movement with strong ties to Gandhi’s Indian Liberation Movement – led by Ghaffar Khan.  Gandhi and Ghaffar Khan were good friends and shared a common philosophy of non-violence. Qayyum will become of follower of Ghaffar Khan and a member of the Khudai Khidmatgar and Pashtun Liberation.

Against this richly layered historical backdrop Shamsie uses her characters to take a hard, unsentimental look at the relationship of two cultures interacting under the social constructs of colonialism & Empire.  She accurately describes the injustice, prejudice, and inequality that existed in British India without dismissing the complexity of that relationship. She also takes an honest look at both cultures’ treatment of women.  Vivian Rose’s father raises her as if he were the son he never had: “a compact early agreed on between them that she would be son and daughter both – female in manners but male in intellect”. He seems remarkably enlightened until we learn how he “set her right” on women getting the vote by sending her to an Anti-Suffrage League meeting. “If all women were like Ms. Bell and you, men would fall over their feet in the haste to give you the vote”. “- Are you to spend the rest of your life making up for my womb’s insistence on killing his sons?” her mother asks at a pivotal point in the sorry.

A few months later, halfway across the world, Najeeb will find his four-year-old niece looking at one of his books.

– Do you want to learn how to read?

Najeeb sat down beside her as he spoke, both of them small enough to occupy a single chair. The child nodded her head, placed her hand on the page and said, Alif, Bey, Pay. Qayyum lifted her up in his arms, away from the book, away from Najeeb’s questioning gaze, and placed her on her grandmother’s lap.

– Play with your doll, little one.

 


A God In Every Stone is a lush, sweeping novel; ping-ponging between Britain and India; with a larger than average cast of characters. Shamsie paints every one of them (no matter how tertiary) so vividly as to confuse her readers into believing she is writing non-fiction. Preconceptions, projection & misunderstandings shape events. From the early chapters, where a young British woman and a wounded Pashtun soldier find themselves sharing a train compartment, to the final pages in which a single Pashtun man finds himself on a rooftop with a young Pashtun lady to whom he is not related –  characters misinterpret and misjudge each others intentions. Shifting, third person narratives provide an array of perspectives – men and women who understand surprisingly little about themselves or each other.  Sometimes with tragic, sometimes glorious, results.

I wrote earlier that this was a messy novel. Let me clarify:  A God In Every Stone is messy like a Charles Dicken’s novel is messy – crammed full of plot, description and people.  Its character’s are imperfect, like those favored by E.M. Forester – committing multiple mistakes before reaching the end.  So yes – I still hold Kamila Shamsie has written a messy, imperfect masterpiece. But a masterpiece nonetheless.

 

*Carian Heraclides of Mylasa is a work attributed to the real life Scylax. In it Heraclides revolts against the Persians (during a Carian revolt c. 492 B.C. which was supported by the Greeks).  

The Dream of the Celt: A Novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the original Spanish by Edith Grossman

https://i0.wp.com/jacketupload.macmillanusa.com/jackets/high_res/jpgs/9781250033321.jpgI prefer historical fiction to biography.  An individual seldom lives up to the mythology arises around celebrity.  I didn’t enjoy reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s descent into alcoholism, Edna St. Vincent Millay losing her identity in what some of her friends seem to have felt was an abusive marriage or Hemingway’s general pettiness.  Or worse, find out that in between those moments of brilliance (as in the case of P.D. Wodehouse, for example) the person I admired led a life that was otherwise only remarkable for its mundanity.  Yes, yes, I know – these expectations are unrealistic.  No one can reside on a pedestal.  But still, I prefer my heroes to remain heroic…  Or at the very  least to possess the dark glamor of an anti-hero.

Perhaps the most intriguing facet of  Roger Casement is that his supposed shortcomings, his blackened reputation, have for a long time overshadowed the good he did.  Here is a man spent his life as a passionate human rights activist.  Casement worked tirelessly and recklessly to bring to the public’s attention the horrors of King Leopold’s Congo.  Later, he would travel to Peru to confirm rumors of similar mistreatment and enslavement of the Putumayo Indians by the  Peruvian Amazon Company.   These atrocities were committed against two sets of indigenous peoples – in countries located 11,329.6 kilometers apart – for the same reason.  To fulfill the international demand for rubber.   For his work Casement would receive both induction into The Order of Michael & Saint George and a knighthood.

It was after his return from Peru that Casement’s  Irish Nationalism – an interest which had been developing over several years – moved towards radicalism.  He aligned himself with those who believed that “home rule”, the possibility of which was dangled before the Irish by the British Parliament like a carrot-on-a-stick, was not the answer.  He was convinced that only true way to gain Ireland’s independence was through an armed uprising.  But he also understood that Ireland would need a powerful ally if such an uprising was to succeed.  So, in the midst of WWI he traveled to Berlin and attempted to forge an alliance between Germany and Ireland.   He failed.  And this failure resulted in his imprisonment and execution as a traitor.

The Dream of the Celt is Mario Vargas Llosa’s first novel after winning the Nobel Prize in 2010.  It is remarkable for the compassion and humanity with which Llosa describes the life and death of Robert Casement.  He presents a complicated man who leaves the reader with mixed feelings.  Llosa’s Casement is a crusader – a zealot.  Whose tunnel vision in the name of a cause – Irish Nationalism – is a combination of pragmatism and naivety which left me squirming.  Pragmatic, in his attempts to seek an Irish alliance with the Kaiser’s Germany.  Naive because of his inability to anticipate the consequences of this act.  Many of his friends turned their backs on him (some who had sons fighting in the British army) when news of his trip to Berlin and the reasons for it became public.  As did the Irish soldiers he attempted to recruit from the German POW camps.

And then there were The Black Diaries – Casement’s private journals which were used by the British government to turn what little favorable public opinion that remained against him and ensure that clemency would be denied.  These journals, which contained lurid descriptions of sexual encounters, are now widely accepted as having been written by Casement (though there remains some disagreement as to where the line between fact and fantasy blurred).  They revealed Casement’s homosexuality to the world and destroyed what remained of his reputation.  Llosa deals with this in an Epilogue, which I recommend reading (even if you are not usually a reader of Forwards and Epilogues).

It took a long time for him [Robert Casement] to be admitted to the pantheon of the heroes of Irish independence.  The secretive campaign launched by British Intelligence to slander him, using fragments of his secret diaries, was successful.  It hasn’t completely dissipated even now: a gloomy aureole of homosexuality and pedophilia surrounded his image throughout all the twentieth century.  His figure discomfited his country because Ireland, until not many years ago, officially maintained an extremely harsh morality in which the mere suspicion of being a “sexual deviant” sank a person into ignominy and expelled him from public consideration…

With the revolution in customs, principally in the area of sexuality, in Ireland, the name of Casement gradually, though always with reluctance and prudery, began to clear a path as being accepted for what he was:  one of the great anticolonial fighters and defenders of human rights and indigenous cultures of his time, and a sacrificed combatant for the emancipation of Ireland.  Slowly his compatriots became resigned to accepting that a hero and martyr is not an abstract prototype or a model of perfection but a human being made of contradictions and contrasts, weakness and greatness, since a man, as José Enrique Rodó wrote, “is many men,” which means that angels and demons combine inextricably in his personality.

The Dream of the Celt is not a biography.  Llosa is not attempting to uncover the facts or even rehabilitate Casement’s reputation.  His goal is to present a rounded portrait of a man, and in that man to describe an Everyman.  Llosa is tackling the themes that the important authors will always return to:  memory, regret, life, death, human connection, a person’s capacity for greatness and the inevitable failures that come in attempting to reach it.

_______________________________________

A quick note on the English translation, by the legendary Edith Grossman, which has just won the International Latino Book Award for Best Fiction Translation.  It’s gorgeous.  The prose flows so easily that it’s difficult to believe that English isn’t the language of origin.  Elegant without being self-conscious:  this is Grossman’s signature.  She has the knack for understatement, as in the following passage (which remained with me after I finished The Dream of the Celt).   This is immediately after Casement learns that his private journals have been published and his secret revealed.

With an almost imperceptible movement of this head, the prisoner refused.  He turned immediately afterward, facing the door of the  visitor’s room.  With his chubby face the sheriff signaled the guard, who unbolted the door and opened it.  The return to his cell was interminable.  During his passage down the long hall with the rocklike walls of blackened red brick, he had the feeling that at any moment he might trip and fall facedown on those damp stones and not get up again.  When he reached the metal door of his cell, he remembered: on the day they brought him to Pentonville Prison, the sheriff had told him that, without exception, all the prisoners who occupied this cell had ended up on the gallows.

This wasn’t my first attempt at reading Mario Vargas Llosa, but The Dream of the Celt is the first novel of his I’ve managed to finish.  This is largely due to Edith Grossman’s wonderful translation.  If you’ve ever wondered how important the translator truly is to the success of a novel, I recommend picking up a few books by the same author, but translated by different translators.  The differences can be shocking.  Grossman lives up to her reputation (the “legendary” wasn’t a joke).  She’s translated five other works by Llosa – as well as the works of other important Spanish authors, including Gabriel García Márquez.

Publisher:  Picador, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 1250 03332 1

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Bare Facts – The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire & Germany’s Bid for World Power by Sean McMeekin

Welcome to Bare Facts: a new, monthly *crosses fingers* feature for 2013 which is all about non-fiction.  The books reviewed in Bare Facts are intended to help provide a historical, geographic and political context  – with subjects ranging from international history, politics, personalities on the world stage, religion, philosophy, etc.


BerlinBaghdadExpress
“The Great Game” is the term used for the 19th and early 20th century struggle between Russia & Great Britain for control of the Middle/Near East.  Sean McMeekin’s book, The Berlin-Baghdad Express, examines the period surrounding the first World War, when Germany made their play at the region through strengthening their relations with the Ottoman Empire and building a railroad that ran from Berlin to Baghdad.  You’ll want to keep a map at your elbow while reading this book.

A warning:  train and railroad enthusiasts should contain their enthusiast because the title is somewhat misleading.  It refers to McMeekin’s premise that Germany & the Central Powers’ failure in the region was in a large part the result of their inability, due to geography and political conflicts, to build a continuous rail network between Berlin and Baghdad.  Unfortunately, as I just demonstrated, you don’t need 400+ pages to make this point. So, while some discussion happens at the beginning and the end of the book, the bulk of The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire & Germany’s Bid for World Power focuses on the complicated (and often preposterous) German machinations to incite a global jihad.

The Porte – the governing body of the Ottoman Empire – had recently been taken over by a group known as the “Young Turks”.  This new, progressive government attempted to put the nation on a more secular path.  In an attempt to reach his goal, the “sick old man of Europe” decided to throw his lot in with the Central Powers.  And while it played the board surprisingly well, the Ottoman Empire was in a tenuous situation from which it never managed to escape.  Germany and the British actively courted the Porte with gold and weapons, but Russia was a constant threat in the East.  The reality was that the “sick old man” was never viewed as more than a pawn in the Great Game played by these three powers.  Albeit a well-payed pawn.  (I particularly like this cartoon from Punch Magazine, showing the Kaiser loading a cannon with a shell representing Turkey – which pretty much shows the situation Turkey found themselves in)WWI Cartoon

But what a game it was!  Berlin-Baghdad Express is filled with fascinating historical minutiae – the kind of spy vs. spy drama seemingly more suited to a John LeCarre novel than something published by Harvard University Press.  (McMeekin is all too aware of the genre element in his story and makes frequent references the novel Greenmantle by John Buchan).   No author could ask for a more romantic period or place – this was the time of Lawrence of Arabia and the setting for the Indiana Jones films.  A colorful cast of whirling dervishes, sheiks and sultans, Bedouins and dragoman, archeologists and Orientalists, traipse across the page.  At one point even “the Duke of Westminster made an appearance, commanding a ‘Light Armoured Car Brigade’ which included ‘six armoured Rolls-Royces mounted with machine guns’.

The failure of Germany rested on more than an incomplete rail system.  Despite having what they thought were the necessary men on the ground, Orientalists who (like Lawrence) had supposedly “gone native”, there were still large holes in German understanding of how the Muslim religion operated.  Only after it was too late did they understand the subtle but important differences and delicate relationships between different sects (Shia & Sunni), tribes and – perhaps most importantly – between Arabs & Turks.  The following extract is wordy, taken from two separate chapters of the book, but it eloquently explains the opportunistic way in which the European powers attempted to manipulate their supposed allies.  That the Germans wore rose-colored glasses is an almost comical understatement of the situation.

Despite his own holy war promises to Kaiser Wilhelm, in October even Enver had cold feet about issuing a full-on global jihad declaration, for fear the Germans, too, would be ensnared if it were taken literally.  The result was a ‘proclamation of holy war against all Europeans with the exceptions of Austrians, Hungarians, and Germans’ – was something of a mess, neither uncompromising enough for the Germans, nor theologically proper enough to satisfy Muslim clerics.  Read literally, moreover, it meant that citizens of neutral countries could be targeted.  So, too, could Belgians, who were specifically named in Ottoman jihad decrees, and Serbians.  By contrasts, US citizens resident in Turkey were specially exempted, along with employees of American missionary colleges….

…Considering how much blood, arms and treasure the Germans had invested in summoning up the ancient spirit of Islamic holy war to bring down the Entente empires, one can understand the creeping sense of disappointment for each successive failure of Oppenheim’s jihad to ignite.  But a true scholar of Islam could have told the Germans exactly what to expect.  As infidels themselves, the Germans could hardly summon up a holy war on their own.  In terms of Islamic jurisprudence, the notion of selective jihad against some, but not all, Christians, as we saw in chapter 6 above, is nonsensical.  On the other hand, the practice of infidels paying for protection – as the Germans, in effect, were doing each time they asked Muslims to spare them while attacking other Christians – is firmly established in Islamic law.  The theological grounds for this jizya, or compulsory tax paid by non-Muslims, is explained clearly in the Koran, Sura 9:29: ‘Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden with hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth (even if they are) of the People of the Book [i.e. Christians and Jews], until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued’ (emphasis added).  German requests for Islamic fatvas and jihadi uprisings against the Entente powers may not have been conceived in Berlin as jizya offerings, but that may have been just how they were interpreted by many Turkish, Arab and Persian imams and clerics.

The product of ignorance?  A lot of gold was spent in the Middle East during the period between 1914-1915 to negligible effect.

The book’s final chapters carefully explain the context and future repercussions of these events.  Because WWII is essentially the lynchpin of 20th century history, McMeekin takes the time to discuss how the German’s cynical attempt to incite a targeted jihad was a precursor to the anti-Semitism of not only the Holocaust, but the attitudes that exist in the Middle East to this day.  He shows how Zionism, a movement which actually began in Germany, was embraced/co-opted by the British.  He deals with the Russian situation: where the Central Powers successful nurturing of the Bolshevik Revolution produced results beyond their wildest dreams.  Thankfully, The Berlin-Baghdad Express goes far beyond how for lack of proper train schedules a war was lost.

Publisher:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 674 05739 5

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Léon & Louise by Alex Capus (translated from the German by John Brownjohn)

Léon & Louise by Alex Capus, translated by John Brownjohn, is a sweet story where a lot occurs without seeming to. It touches on both World Wars and follows a fairly typical plot of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy (now married with children) finds girl again eleven years later. The two go their separate ways and… well the “and” is what make up a good chunk of the story.

This is a love story in which the lovers spend most of their lives apart.  Léon believes Louise dead after the two stumble (well, actually, bicycle) into a battlefield after an idyllic day at the beach.  Louise, discovering that he survived his injuries, believes Léon indifferent.  Léon eventually marries, has a loving and successful – if not always comfortable or passionate – relationship with his wife (the most interesting character of the book).  Under the Vichy government he survives – as many Parisians must have – committing only the smallest acts of resistance. As his grandson tells us,

“…like many families, we firmly believe that, although we’re nothing special, we’re unique notwithstanding.

This illusion cannot be substantiated and is wholly unfounded. To the best of my knowledge, no Le Gall has ever achieved anything worthy of remembrance by the world at large. This is attributable first to our lack of any outstanding talents, secondly to indolence, thirdly to the fact that as adolescents most of us develop an arrogant contempt for the initiation rites of a conventional education, and fourthly to the strong aversion to Church, police and intellectual authority that is almost invariably handed down from father to son.”

Louise takes a more unconventional path in life. She remains single, drives a fast sports car and works for the Bank of France. The author appears to be placing the tacit question – which life is the more fulfilling? – without expecting an answer. Capus’ has created two quirky characters and a narrator with an ironic sense of humor to tell their story.  He more or less succeeds in building a convincing picture of the lives of normal people under the Vichy government in WWII.  My criticism is that Capus’ doesn’t take his “quirky” sensibility far enough.  I picked up this novel hoping to discover something along the lines of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. It never succeeds in becoming that.

The German translator John Brownjohn also translates Walter Moers’ Zamonian fantasy novels which (as you might know) are favorites of mine.  In fact, Brownjohn has translated more than 160 books and I wouldn’t be surprised if a good deal of the quirkiness of the language in Léon & Louise are attributable to him. He never seems to shy away from the odd – whether it be literary dinosaurs or French women stranded in the Congo.  He is a master at understatement – achieving subtle effects using the minimum of words.  I’d like to reiterate that I do not read or speak German.  But I am familiar enough with this translator’s work to recognize his signature. (For more on John Brownjohn, follow the link to an interview with The Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf & Book Reviews blog).

This is a quiet book which I, on the whole, enjoyed.   But, it isn’t the type of novel that changes your life.  Closing the covers a reader takes nothing away other than it is possible to live an ordinary, unassuming life even in extraordinary times.  Perhaps Capus didn’t realize he was writing a tragedy.

Publisher:  Haus Publishing, London (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 908323 13 2

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Ali & Nino by Kurban Said (translated from German by Jenia Graman)

Map drawn by Jenia Graman, the novel's translator

Ali & Nino is set in the country of Azerbeidshan (Azerbaijan), circa 1918.  It reads as both a 19th century romance and a 20th century historical/political novel.  Ali, a young nobleman, falls in love with a Nino, a Georgian princess.  They’re engaged to be married.  Their relationship must overcome religious differences (he is Muslim, she a Christian) and world events.  It begins on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution and ends with Azerbeidshan part of the Soviet Union.

Geography is an important element to understanding the plot, so a world map from the period might be worth looking up (though not necessary, the author does a pretty good job of explaining the small nation’s precarious situation).   Baku – the city where much of the action takes place – is on the Western tip of Azerbeidshan, directly across the Caspian Sea from Russia.  Turkey and Armenia are to the East, Georgia and the Ukraine are North, Persia/Iran is to the South.  When the book opens the Russians hold Baku, but Azerbeidshan will pass through many hands before the last page.

Ali Khan narrates the novel, and we learn that the story we are reading is from his journal.   In it he tells of his & Nino’s childhood in Baku, their courtship, marriage and the birth of their child.  Throughout their story, eventually overtaking it, are the politics of the period and region.  There is a moment when a Georgian, speaking of Georgia, tells Ali, “We are between the two claws of a pair of red-hot tongs.  If the Germans win – it’s the end of the land of Tamar. If the Russians win – what then?”  When Ali repeats this to Nino she asks him what about Azerbeidshan?  He replies, “For us it’s different.  We are lying on the anvil and the Grand Duke (of Russia) holds the hammer.”  This small country, we are frequently reminded, is where Europe and Asia meet.  It is the gate between two cultures, and it is Ali & Nino’s home.

Ali is a product of both old Persia and new Europe, though he identifies himself as a Muslim.  When he tells his father that he has “defended Asia with machinegun, bayonet and dagger” his father replies:

You are a brave man, Ali Khan.  But what is bravery?  Europeans are brave too.  You and all the men who fought with you – you are not Asiatics any more.  I do not hate Europe.  I am indifferent to it.  You hate it, because there is something European in you.  You went to a Russian school, you have learnt Latin, you have a European wife.  How can you still be an Asiatic?  If you had won, you yourself would have introduced Europe in Baku, even without realising it, or intending to.”

Comfortable in each culture, Ali is content in neither.  Nino is very much a European woman, her only binding tie to Asia is her love of Ali.  Baku is the only place where they can exist together happily.  His & Nino’s relationship can be read as a metaphor for the impact of the two cultures colliding and coexisting, however briefly, in the microcosm of Azerbeidshan.  What is shocking is how little has changed.  Many of the cultural issues and conflict they deal with are familiar to a reader 3 quarters of a century later.

Georgian Edition

When Nino is kidnapped by the Albanian who (incongruously) helped arrange her engagement, Ali hunts down and brutally kills the man with his friends’ aid.  As he moves away from the corpse one asks “What’s to be done with the woman? Will you stab her or shall I?” Another holds a dagger out to him and says “Kill her, Ali Khan”.  The third nods and advises, “We’ll throw the body into the sea.”  Yet all three believe absolutely that she was abducted against her will.  When Ali declines to have Nino killed, the friend with the dagger tells him (smiling dreamily, mind you) that, “Her life belongs to you.  You can take it, you can spare it. The Law permits either.” Earlier, when Ali is worrying about the repercussions of an interfaith marriage to Nino, this same friend tells him that it does not matter what faith his wife is, as women have no souls.  The treatment of women, at times, makes Ali and Nino a difficult book to read.

Which is the power of fiction.  Because perhaps you can dismiss a news story about an honor killing in Palestine as the action of a monster and change the channel.  Disentangling yourself after 200 pages from a hereto sympathetic character, who sees it as a reasonable option, is not as easy.  Ali chooses not to kill Nino.  But not because he feels it would be wrong.  Honor killings are not only tolerated, Ali’s friends and family esteem him more for killing the Albanian (and their esteem would have increased had he sacrificed Nino). You are left in no doubt that if one of his friends had made a different choice, about their own wife or fiance, Ali would not have objected.

Ali’s love for Nino does not require him to reject what he has been taught.  In his mind, it just does not apply to their circumstances. Nino expresses concern about being confined to a harem, refuses to wear a veil and before their marriage worries about Ali taking multiple wives.  Ali does not make her do any of these things, not because he agrees with or even tries to understand her feelings, but because he loves her and wants her happy.  And while Ali is written as a sympathetic and admirable protagonist – what if he didn’t love Nino?  Or stopped loving her?  How quickly and easily could Ali & Nino shift into a different kind of story?

____________

Albanian Edition
Albanian Edition

As it is, Ali & Nino is cinematic in its scope.  It reminds me of a period film and I’m honestly surprised one hasn’t been made.  There are lyrical, evocative passages about the desert that read as if they come from some centuries old Middle Eastern text.  And then the author inserts a sentence that deals with contemporary practicalities. This constant juxtaposition of old and new, modern and traditional, creates for the reader a snapshot of an ancient culture on the cusp of the twentieth century.  When Ali tells his father he wishes to marry, his father responds,

‘I’ll build a villa for you.  I know of a place on the Esplanade.  I suppose there’s a stable there.  During the summer you can stay at Mardakjany.  You’ll have to call your first son Ibrahim, in honour of our ancestor.  I’ll give you a motor car, if you want one.  But there’s really no point in having one, we haven’t got the roads for them.  A stable full of horses is better.’

In another passage, Ali describes a caravan arriving in Baku – a harbinger of what is to come.

Camels came into town from the desert, with long sad steps, carrying sand in their yellow hair, looking far into the distance with eyes that had seen eternity.  They were carrying guns on their humps, the barrels hanging down their sides, crates with ammunition and guns: loot from the big battles.  Turkish prisoners of war in their grey uniforms were marched through the town, tattered and bruised.  When they came to the sea, little steamboats took them to the Island of Nargin, where they died of diarrhoea, hunger or homesickness.  If they escaped they died in Persia’s salt deserts, or in the leaden waters of the Caspian Sea.  The war, that had begun so far away, had suddenly come close to us.

This combination of romance, history and beautiful prose is a winning one.  It’s no surprise that over the year Ali & Nino has been translated into dozens of languages.  And unlike many books of the period, it has aged well.  The story is the antithesis of the formulaic 19th century romance plot.  There is an honesty, integrity and (most important) substance to this novel that – while you may not be comfortable with everything between its covers – you can’t help but respect.

Note:  The life of Kurban Said, whose real name was Les Nussimbaum, is a fascinating story in and of itself.  There is a swirl of controversy over whether or not he actually wrote Ali & Nino.  I haven’t read it yet, but readers interested in a nonfiction book dealing with its (alleged) author’s life should try The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange & Dangerous Life by Tom Reiss (available through Random House).

Publisher:  Anchor Books, New York (2000).
ISBN:  978 0 385 72040 3

Publisher:  Overlook Press, New York (1996?).
ISBN:  978 0 87951 668 0

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