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.’ “

The novel opens with a murder mystery – a body has been found, and when the assigned detective is suddenly removed from the case by the secret service he is determined to secretly continue investigating. What he unravels is a clan war that goes back generations, and continues to claim victims no matter how hard those involved try to hide or distance themselves.

What prevents this from being a slightly distanced, slightly raced through family saga, is the central story that forms the bulk of the novel – that of Rana and Farid, lovers whose struggle to be together is thwarted by feuding families and political instability, jealousy and revenge. Although every character in this novel is wonderfully elucidated, Rana and Farid are truly alive to me. They are young people trying to embrace the modernity and opportunity of Damascus while respecting their families, and finding that it just isn’t possible, and that in Syria tradition and old-fashioned values will always win.

Rana is well educated, with an immediate family that is forward-thinking and comfortable with Western influence, but her extended family is not so tolerant and the threat of honour killing hangs over her. Farid is passionate about the need for radical social change, which attracts him to ideas and people who are dangerous in a country ruled by ever-changing despots and tyrants.

“Farid almost lost his mind in this silence…Why was he here at all?…During that week he realised that books could be a life-raft in an ocean of silence and grief. And when he lay in bed at night with his back aching from sitting and reading so long, he felt Rana’s hand in the darkness and travelled with her through the world of the stories he had read.”

The novel’s structure is slightly unusual; experimental even. Schami describes it as a mosaic, by which he means that rather than telling the story is strict chronological order, he instead broke it up into themes. There are books of love, death, growth, loneliness and so on, each in turn broken into lots of very short chapters. In some books a straightforward story is told from a particular perspective. Other books are more of a montage of lots of moments or smaller stories, often introducing dozens of characters who may not come up again. This reminded me a little of Salman Rushdie’s comment at a talk I saw him give last year about “the crowd of stories in any city” and how he had tried to write the literary equivalent of this by “deliberately overpopulating the narrative with fragments of stories, each trying to push its way through the crowd”.

Often, the same time period will be covered in multiple books from different perspectives. At the start of my reading I didn’t always take note of the date range given at the start of a book and would then get confused by events. But getting a little lost in the timeline doesn’t matter really as the key details are clear.

I learned so much from this novel about Syria – a country that is sadly now solely associated with war and radical Islam, but before recent war tore it to shreds it was a modern country not so far behind the West, at least in the cities. It survived endless changes of regime, endless skirmishes with neighbouring countries, a constantly fractious relationship between its own Muslims, Christians and Jews. Schami’s portrait of Syria, and especially Damascus, is loving, but he is certainly also critical. He disguised the names of the string of military and political leaders for this novel, so that he could weave them and their followers into the plot, which means I would need to do some serious research to unpick history from fiction, but I recognised some details, from the French occupation to the Six Day War. In realistic fashion, some of these events directly impact on the novel’s characters more than others. But the indirect effects of big political change are a constant thread.

“The girl dancing alone didn’t seem to mind the cold. Her movements had a strange, summery composure. Rana looked at the child’s neck and wondered, if a bullet really did hit the little girl, what sign her blood would paint in the air. When her aunt Jasmin died, the jet of blood on the wall had traced a number eight lying on its side, the symbol of infinity. That was ten years ago.”

I find that I am truly missing this novel now that it’s over. It gripped me from the first page. I hope Schami’s over novels are this wonderful.

Die dunkle Seite der Liebe published 2004 by Carl Hanser Verlag Munchen.
This translation published 2009 by Arabia Books.

Source: Birthday present from my Mum.