Love should bestow sublimity

dark side of loveThe Dark Side of Love
by Rafik Schami
translated from German by Anthea Bell

I can’t remember where I first heard about this book but I do know it was on my birthday wishlist a few years back and I was surprised when I opened the parcel to find not a stack of three or four books, but one big fat book. It is epic in every sense of the word and I loved spending two weeks absorbed in it.

Rafik Schami writes in his afterword that ever since he was a 16-year-old boy in Syria, back in the 1960s, he had wanted to write a realistic Arab love story, but it took him 40-odd years to get it right. The result is a novel that looks at dozens of permutations of doomed romance against a backdrop of decades of Syrian history, though the bulk of the story is set in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Nagib looked askance at his daughter and smiled. ‘Why does love always have to imply possession?’ he asked, shaking his head…’You should love with composure…Love should bestow sublimity. It lets you give everything without losing anything. That’s its magic. But here people want a contract of marriage concluded in the presence of witnesses. Imagine, witnesses, as if it were some kind of crime…State and Church supervise the contract. That’s not love, it’s orders from a higher authority to increase and multiply.’ “

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Pink Mist

Bristol Old Vic
19 February 2016

One of my Christmas presents from Tim was tickets to the play Pink Mist at Bristol Old Vic, which I knew nothing about except that it’s all in verse and was first performed last year. So it’s modern and experimental but in other ways classical, harking back even as far as ancient Greek theatre. Because this is the story of three young men – boys, really, the main character Arthur corrects himself – who go to war.

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Autumn reads in brief

These are some very brief reviews indeed because I have had so much else on this month, I’m frankly amazed I’ve found time to read at all. Before I zone out in front of another half-dozen episodes of The Big Bang Theory, here is what I’ve been reading.

 

pride of baghdad

Pride of Baghdad
by Brian K Vaughan (writer) and Niko Henrichon (artist)

This is a beautiful, moving and unusual perspective on war. It takes as inspiration the 2003 news story that four lions escaped Baghdad Zoo during a bombing raid in the Iraq War. Vaughan and Henrichon give the lions names and personalities, and this does result in some anthropomorphising, but that can be forgiven because the result is so good.

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Holiday in France: the reporters memorial

A friend suggested I blog about this after it was almost all I talked about when summarising our holiday! It certainly made a big impression on me.

A Robert Capa Memorial des Reporters

It started with a small memorial outside a museum in Bayeux to Robert Capa, a photographer whose work Tim and I are familiar with and admire, so we were interested to see something about him but also curious what claim Bayeux had to him. We continued along the path in grounds opposite the Commonwealth war cemetery and next we came to two marble slabs that said they were the entrance to a memorial to “journalists killed all over the world since 1944”, a joint project between Bayeux and Reporters Without Borders. Which seemed like a very good idea, and I walked on expecting just a peaceful garden of some kind. I hadn’t read the text properly (I think I’d tried to understand the French rather than looking at the English) so I wasn’t prepared for what came next.

Too many names

A long, tree-sheltered footpath flanked on both sides by marble slabs listing the name of every journalist killed under the year of their death (the photo above shows only a small section). It’s simple and powerful and heartbreaking, because there are so many names, and the numbers seem to be increasing. So much so that a second path has been started.

I’m not sure why this moved me more than the thousands of graves of soldiers just over the road (which was also pretty disquieting), but somehow it did. I could argue that soldiers sign up for the possibility of death, but of course in World War Two most of them didn’t get a choice. In fact, reporters have more choice about whether or not to go to a war zone, but then not all of these deaths were in a war zone. For those who want more than a list of names, there is an online archive.

Untitled

I suppose I can relate to the reporters, to their decision to tell the truth about the world. Not that I in any way consider myself worthy to stand alongside the men and women who risk their lives to make corruption, injustice and other important news known to the world, but I admire them in a way I just can’t admire a soldier. I can be (and indeed am) sad about the massive loss of life during war, but it’s not the same thing.

I don’t understand war, how anyone could take a fight to the level of massive loss of human life, and it is only through writing, both journalism and fiction, that I can at least try to comprehend. For anyone interested in what it’s like to be a reporter on war zones and other dangerous regions, I highly recommend the work of Joe Sacco, who is honest about the draw and the thrill, as well as the need to tell the stories of the real people affected.

(Back to more cheerful things, and maybe another book review, soon I promise!)

Unsung women kept the wheels of the war machine turning

fighting-on-the-home-front

Fighting on the Home Front: the Legacy of Women in World War One
by Kate Adie

This is a book that needed to be written, and Kate Adie seems like a good choice for it – a journalist whose own career blazed a trail for women to follow, but who is nevertheless rarely if ever controversial, not radically feminist and famously matter of fact. And arguably that’s exactly the book you get: competently written, comprehensive and factual. But is it the book I was hoping for?

This is the story of British women in World War One, from encouraging men to enlist, to stepping up to fill men’s jobs left vacant, to political campaigns for the vote and equal pay, to supporting the armed forces on the battlefields. It was a time of radical change throughout the world, but for women in Britain especially so. Adie takes a different war-time role per chapter and looks at it overall (including pre-war history where relevant) as well as showcasing specific examples of women in that field. She acknowledges that most of these are upper or middle class women, because even war did not erode class boundaries and generally the women creating new charities and organisations, from knitting drives to army hospitals, were those who had money and social clout. However, she does also include excerpts from interviews with many women from lower down the social ladder who can testify as to the reality of work in munitions factories, felling trees, delivering post, driving trams and dozens of other roles previously male-only.

It’s certainly an interesting read, with plenty of fascinating snippets and some surprising facts. There was real resistance maintained to women filling certain roles right up to the end of the war (they could clean, build, engineer and signal trains but never drive them, for instance) but also to the way women dressed when they took on these jobs – skirts 10 inches above the ground, or even trousers! Adie has clear admiration for all these women, from the ambulance drivers who went to war zones without official permission because they knew they were needed, to the maids who joined the Women’s Land Army and worked long hard days in mud for little money because they knew there was a food shortage. She depicts the good and the bad – explosions in munitions factories and the beginnings of women’s football; women working longer hours for less pay than the men they replaced and their winning the (restricted) right to vote in early 1918.

“However vital the [munitions] work was, it wasn’t glamorous – it was hard, undertaken in unpleasant conditions, boring and relentless…The press were not inclined to print stories about the downside of this vast industry. Physical stress, unhealthy conditions and increasing arguments about wages from those who could see they were doing the same as men was not the image that was projected: these were fit, patriotic workers.”

Suffrage features heavily because most suffragettes and suffragists (previous to reading this book I had no idea there was a difference) abandoned, or appeared to abandon, their political campaigns in favour of helping the war effort. In some cases this was itself a political act – by exercising their skills of organisation, marketing and fundraising in a field no-one could disapprove of, they proved their capability, not to mention that many of the organisations created by suffragettes were formed wholly of women doing “men’s work”, or filling traditional women’s roles but in dangerous territory so that the armed forces didn’t need to “waste” able men feeding, cleaning uniforms for and providing first aid to their troops.

There were many victories won, small and large, by British women between 1914 and 1918, but many were only temporary. The post-war section of the book is fairly short, but in general women were kicked out of their new jobs, often at the worst possible time for them to lose their income, as men’s deaths and injuries resulting from war left many women as the principal wage earners for their household. I would have liked a few case studies here, for Adie to have followed up with some of the women interviewed earlier to see how their lives progressed.

“The time and energy spent in travelling, acquiring supplies, sorting, packing and transporting them abroad are hardly recorded. It represents the most enormous amount of daily effort by an unsung and huge amount of women…Garnering no medals and mostly ignored by the official historians, it was small beer compared to the horrifying statistics of the military campaign; but every last little bandage and bar of soap kept the wheels of the war machine turning.”

In fact, this would be my overriding criticism – the narrative descends into generalisation a little too often. I wanted more facts – how many women did this job before, during and after the war? – and more first-hand accounts. I also didn’t like all the subjects Adie chose to concentrate on. There’s a whole chapter about women’s struggle to be allowed to read in church, which actually formed an amusing anecdote in the speech Adie gave about this book in Bath last year, but didn’t really have the substance for a whole chapter, and as a result it was an especially woolly chapter. I suppose as a feminist and occasional radical myself, I wanted more of those trailblazing women – Flora Sandes who joined the Serbian army as a soldier, Louisa Garrett Anderson who qualified as a doctor and ran hospitals near the front line so that she could get to injured men early enough to operate. And I also would have liked some personal accounts of men’s reactions, rather than just what was published in the papers.

Adie throws in her own family history during the war, which is fine, but there is also a very obvious slant to her home town of Sunderland. At one point I wondered if she’d bothered to do research anywhere else! She also throws in her own experience as a war reporter, which is sometimes perfectly appropriate and sometimes jarring.

I think “uneven” would be my one-word summary, but even so this is a very readable, enlightening book about many many amazing women.

Published 2013 by Hodder & Stoughton.

Source: I bought this at a Toppings author event in Bath.

The extraordinary silence of these long, self-contained days

The Wine of Solitude

The Wine of Solitude
by Irène Némirovsky
translated from French by Sandra Smith

Since reading Suite Française when it was discovered and released I have been eager to read more of Némirovsky’s early novels. This is my second and so far they have failed to come close to the brilliance of her final, inspirational work. Not that this is by any means a bad book, but I suppose I had been expecting something more.

I suspect some of Némirovsky’s own life fed into this novel. It follows a family with a Jewish father who move from Ukraine to Russia to Finland to Paris in the 1910s and 1920s, so the background is the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the stock market rise and fall. Which is a turbulent, exciting and occasionally terrifying background for what is at heart the coming of age of a young woman.

“The smell of cigars and brandy wafted through the house until morning, slipping beneath her door and insinuating itself into her dreams. A faraway rumbling shook the paving stones: artillery detachments were passing by in the street.”

But it’s not that simple. Hélène dearly loves her father but he has no time for her between his gambling and business affairs – everything is about making money for Boris Karol. And Hélène’s mother should never really have become a mother at all, as she just wants to party, have affairs with young men and buy expensive clothes and jewels. Hélène harbours quite deep hatred of her mother, which becomes more bitter as she gets older.

“When she was ten years old she began to find a melancholy charm in the solitude of these Sundays. She liked the extraordinary silence of these long, self-contained days, which were like faint little suns in a different universe where time flowed at a slower pace.”

There is a lot of negative emotion in this book, as if Némirovsky is pressing home the point that money does not equal happiness. In fact, the brief interludes of happiness for Hélène are determinedly simple pleasures – going for afternoon walks with her French governess, sledging in snow, childhood summers in Paris playing with children who don’t judge her for being different, for having fashionable clothes and speaking better French than Russian. But mostly her early life is unhappy. Not terrible or desperate, but unhappy. And part of her journey to adulthood is learning to find and enjoy those simple pleasures, and making the decision whether to be cold and strong like her mother or passionate but breakable like her father.

“A storm was brewing over Paris; the sky was covered in copper-coloured wisps of cloud that slowly moved closer together to form a blanket of pink mist that parted every so often to reveal a dazzling ray of light.”

There is some beautiful writing here, especially in the descriptions of places, but I found the dialogue and descriptions of emotions a little simplistic or false-sounding. There would be pages of Hélène analysing herself in a manner both too detached and knowing but also naively that for me broke the spell.

“No, I won’t read. All those books make me anxious and unhappy. I have to be happy; I have to like other people…Tonight, I’ll cut out pictures, I’ll draw—I’m happy; I want to be a happy little girl.”

Not that it wasn’t worth reading. And I certainly think there is more to this book than the cover art lets on (a terrible cliché of the elegant young woman in Paris, which doesn’t come close to expressing the darkness that this book contains). It just suffers from my having read what was probably Némirovsky’s best before I read the rest.

First published as Le vin de solitude by Editions Albin Michel in 1935.

This translation published 2011 by Chatto & Windus.

Source: This was a present from my Dad for Christmas 2012.

The places to which your blood is anchored

The Tiger’s Wife
by Téa Obreht

I am trying not to let my jealousy of young, beautiful, successful Téa Obreht colour my feelings about this book because she is undeniably talented and deserving too. This novel felt original and inventive by using traditional folktale-type storytelling.

How do you describe what this book is about? It’s about the civil war that broke up Yugoslavia; it’s about love in its many forms; it’s about the affection we bestow on objects, animals or even people who can never return it; it’s about how superstitions and folk stories are created and why they are important. But it begins and keeps on coming back to the death of a beloved grandfather.

The narrator, Natalia, is a doctor who is travelling to an orphanage across the newly formed border to deliver vital vaccines and other medical care when she receives news of her grandfather’s death. This story is already complicated by odd details and family secrets, and then when she arrives at the orphanage she finds another complicated situation awaits, tied up in distrust and superstition and national identity. Obreht weaves into this story not one but effectively three further plots: Natalia’s relationship with her grandfather, the story her grandfather told her of the Deathless Man, and the story she pieced together after his death of the Tiger’s Wife.

At first, the “facts” within the novel versus the fictions seem clear, but as the novel progresses they are increasingly wound up together until they cannot be separated. The main recurring theme is the tiger. During Natalia’s grandfather’s childhood, a tiger escapes from the zoo in the big city and comes into his village, triggering local legend for generations to come and consolidating the boy’s love of The Jungle Book, a copy of which he carries with him for the rest of his life. Natalia’s earliest memories are of going to the zoo every week with her grandfather and his particular love of the tiger there, and later his distress for the tiger during the zoo’s war-enforced closure. Obreht describes scenes from the tiger’s point of view and yet never once anthropomorphises him.

The writing is lyrical without being longwinded. In fact, a lot is packed in and it was a long way into the book that I realised just how much it was about the war that broke up Yugoslavia. In a way, this is dealt with in an underhand way because the country is never named. Natalia’s home is just the City and all the other placenames given are fictitious. But between Obreht’s background and the details that are given, it seems likely that the setting is the Balkans. The City of two rivers that is untouched by years of civil war until a sudden onslaught of bombing might easily be Belgrade. I don’t know if the names are withheld out of sensitivity for which side of the new borders the characters are from, or if this is just another element of mystique adding to the fable quality of the story. Certainly, when the narrative delves into the histories of characters they seem to match up with the history of the Balkans, with invasions from Turks and Germans, and there is an interesting discussion of people who have only just become one nation, with one identity, coming to terms with its dissolution.

“When your fight has purpose—to free you from something, to interfere on behalf of an innocent—it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unravelling—when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event—there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed by it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it.”

Obreht does a good job of combining a modern feeling in the first-person narrator, who is real and rounded, and an old-fashioned round-the-fire storytelling vibe. My only gripe would be that toward the end I started to feel that there were too many stories at once. Every notable character within each story gets a full backstory and I started to notice that details overlap or repeat, which I am sure has significance but was too many levels for me. But maybe that just means that it will reward re-reading.

First published in 2011 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011.

Memories that approached, invading my body

The Seamstress
by María Dueñas
translated by Daniel Hahn

This novel (which is titled The Time In Between in some countries) is one of those where a lot happens later in the book and I am torn about how much to reveal. I don’t think the story hinges on these plot points, but I have a general policy to not give away plot details. So I’ll do my best but

I think the key to my impression of this book was hidden away in the author’s note at the end. I can see why it was saved until after all of the story has been revealed, but it made me see everything in a different light and half makes me want to re-read the book with the new knowledge that I have. What Dueñas has done is to take a historical story that she wanted to tell, with huge real events and important real people, but shown through the prism of a fictional minor character.

That character is Sira, born in Madrid to a single mother who works hard as a seamstress. Sira is all set to follow in her mother’s footsteps, or perhaps learn to type and become a lowly civil servant, when a man storms into her life and changes everything.

The story is set in the 1930s and 1940s, through the Spanish Civil War and the beginnings of World War II. In Spain, Morocco and Spain again, Sira’s fortunes rise and rise, but as she mixes with richer folk she learns about the politics of her country and is driven to do what she can to help it at this worst of times. She enjoys more than a little luck, with many a kind stranger giving her a helping hand along her way, but she is a likeable enough character. In fact, she is a very strong woman, single for most of the book and independently making her way.

Sira narrates the story in no-nonsense fashion, with few embellishments and few asides. What she describes is believably what would catch the eye of a dressmaker born to a poorer life than the one she later enjoys. She describes the poise and confidence of the rich, the cut and quality of clothes, the size and elegance of rooms or furnishings. Despite essentially following one career on a successful trajectory, Sira thinks of each new stage in her life as a reinvention, requiring changes to her personality as well as her back story. She makes a point of teaching herself how to act above her station – how to stand, how to speak, how to socialise.

At 600+ pages it’s quite a long book, and there were times in the middle when my attention strayed. It felt to me that the whole point of the book was the final section, in Madrid when Franco’s government is teetering towards full collaboration with the Nazis, and that all of the rest had been build-up. It certainly changes pace there, becoming a thriller with a poised, confident female heroine. But perhaps it wouldn’t have worked so well without the full knowledge of how Sira became that woman.

Another slight negative for me, and of course I don’t know if this is Dueñas or the translation, was that there were many times when what could have been a subtle point was overstated, sometimes clumsily even. But I should also say that in general I thought the translation was excellent, dealing very effectively with characters speaking multiple languages to one another.

This book has stayed with me in the days since finishing it and has definitely made me curious to learn more about the Spanish Civil War. And it’s made me want to go to Morocco, but I kinda already wanted to do that!

This book was sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published May 2012 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books.

Categories aren’t always helpful

A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations
a novelette by Kim Stanley Robinson

In preparation for tomorrow’s jaunt to BristolCon, I have been reading some sci-fi short stories this week. Tim recommended this one, which has stuck with him for years (though it may not quite count as sci-fi). You can read it online here.

It’s the story of Frank Churchill (no idea if the Austen reference is deliberate), a writer of history books who is living in New York and taking “light therapy” in an attempt to alleviate his depression. It doesn’t seem to be working so he reluctantly accepts an offer to travel to London to write a complete history of the 20th century, figuring that the UK’s longer hours of daylight in summer will save him having to attend therapy.

The bulk of the story is about his research, with daily trips to the reading room at the British Museum. His findings form part of the story, a sorry litany of war after war after war. Obviously that’s a limited view of the century but it’s certainly believable that in future it’s all that will be remembered.

As with my previous experience of Robinson (or “Stan”, as I believe his friends know him), it’s all about the main character. In the background lurks a vague sense of apocalypse, of things unexplained, but at the forefront is an everyday, relatable human being. Frank is deftly created, a few words rustling up a lifetime of backstory. Every location is described with what feels like insider knowledge, without it becoming a list of buildings and street names (believe me, it happens). I often find that a short story isn’t long enough for me to really care about the outcome but I definitely cared about Frank.

I greatly enjoyed this story and it reminded me that I really should go back and finish Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy.

First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1991. Reprinted in Remaking History and other stories (Orb, 1994).

Non-fiction in fiction’s guise

War is Boring
story by David Axe, artwork by Matt Bors

I am starting to acquire a collection of this “graphic novel style journalism” and I’m really liking it thus far. If anyone has any recommendations for more titles, let me know!

That said, this is not my favourite of the bunch. It’s a slim volume by war correspondent Axe and flits quickly through Chad, Iraq, Lebanon, East Timor, Afghanistan and Somalia, with really only a few short scenes in each place. Which is the point of the book but still not what I was expecting. I suppose I was hoping for a little more background behind each war; in fact I say “more” but in some cases we learn no more than “it’s a war zone”.

But I’m being unfair. Axe’s actual journalism about all these places was published elsewhere. This is not that. This book is about the effect of war on him, on his way of seeing the world. Or perhaps it’s not about war itself but solely about him and the type of person he is. You see, from the start his maxim is “War is boring, peace is much worse” and despite coming perilously close to bullets, explosions, rockets and deadly knives, this view of things doesn’t change.

While he calls himself a war junkie, Axe doesn’t seem to get a thrill from war, it’s just that a direct attempt on his life is the only thing that makes him feel alive. I can’t really understand that but then I’ve never experienced it; I suspect my whole world view would change.

I do empathise with Axe’s aim, which is to bring world conflicts and the people affected by them to wider attention. He genuinely cares and is deeply upset by what he sees when he travels to these places. His website, warisboring.com is part webcomic, part blog from the warzones that he continues to travel to and, with all the space of the internet, it seems to get deeper into the minutiae of each conflict visited, or even just Axe’s experience of each. There are photographs of soldiers in action and straight journalistic accounts alongside the panels of the comic and this combination works better, for me, than the comic alone.

As with previous examples of this genre, the artwork is excellent – detailed and illuminating without showing a lot of graphic violence. And the depiction of Axe himself is self-deprecating and self-aware and more likeable than not. Maybe he has since struck a better balance in life, but the book ends with a frighteningly bleak statement about the awfulness of humanity and the senselessness of violence that made me want to tell him to go see some beautiful things in-between wars – but then, I’m an optimist.

First published August 2010 by Penguin Books.