Daily Archives: March 16, 2011

Random Acts of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann

This dual-time narrative follows the stories of two very different men who can’t let go of the women they love. In 1992, Leo Deakin loses his girlfriend in a bus accident in South America and struggles to get over her death, wondering how he could ever possibly move on. He sees Eleni in everything he does, yet her continued presence in his life causes him to fall into a spiral of depression. Meanwhile, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the outbreak of WWI, Moritz Daniecki leaves his beloved Lotte to fight the Russians. He ends up captured and placed in a Siberian POW camp, and it will take him years to trek back to Lotte after he escapes. The memory of her brief kiss keeps him going through the cold winter and the harsh life of Revolution-era Russia, but will she still be waiting for him when he makes it back to their village? And what is the link between Leo and Moritz’s tales of enduring love?

I’ve had my eye on this book for a while but I never got around to reading it until I was sent a copy. I really enjoyed reading about the “other side” of WWI. While everyone knows about what went on in Britain, the USA, Germany and even France, Russia and other Eastern European countries often get forgotten. Moritz’s story was tough and truly heartbreaking, as he devoted himself to travelling across Russia despite not knowing whether Lotte would wait for him. The descriptions of the state of the Austro-Hungarian army and the POW camp were rather horrific, and not for the faint-hearted! There were some scenes that made me feel a bit sick, but you truly understand what the soldiers experienced. Even those who have never studied this period in history will be able to appreciate this book as it gives you a flavour of the Eastern front of WWI without expecting any prior knowledge. I also loved the way that Moritz’s story was told, in his death-bed speech to his oldest son during WWII. I could almost hear his voice as I read the story.

Leo’s story, on the other hand, was told in third-person and I felt rather detached from it. While I was intrigued with the premise – a man waking up in a hospital in South America and having no idea how he got there – the mystery of his accident and Eleni’s death was solved very quickly, and I found it difficult to connect with him. I sympathized with his plight at having lost his love, but the way that he dealt with it didn’t sit well with me. Despite claiming that he was mourning Eleni, he got involved with a couple of women who he didn’t care about and it made me feel rather uncomfortable. I explained the situation to my fiancée and even he thought it made Leo an unlikable character. Leo also makes friends with Roberto, a physics lecturer, and makes connections between physics and love. These were kind of interesting, but didn’t mean a lot to an Arts student like myself! I was happy with the conclusion to Leo’s story and I warmed up to him a lot more in the last few chapters, but overall he was difficult to connect with.

This novel is worth reading just for Moritz’s story – it truly is a tale of heroic love. Leo’s is heartbreaking in its own way, even if I didn’t always agree with his actions. Don’t read this if you’re feeling sad, as the plight of Moritz and Leo will probably just make you feel worse! I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys dual-time narratives (I suspected the connection early on but it’s still worth reading to uncover it!), unusual tales of love or historical fiction. And it’s completely possible to read this without knowing anything about WWI, the Russian Revolution, South America or physics!

Random Acts of Heroic Love; Scheinmann, Danny; Black Swan Books; £7.99

Collected Stories by Hanif Kureishi

The pieces gathered in Kureishi’s enormous Collected Stories date exclusively from the later part of his career. The book reprints the collections Love in a Blue Time (1997), Midnight All Day (1999) and The Body (2002), adding only a slim volume’s worth of new material. In consequence, it has a hung-over feel; in spite of the sexual charge to many of the stories, Kureishi’s past as a greedy celebrant of urban transgression is mostly a rueful memory.

Again and again, the characters look back on their 70s radicalism and 80s prosperity with a mixture of nostalgia, bewilderment and regret. Joe, the jobbing ad director at the centre of “In a Blue Time”, is by no means alone in no longer having a clue about “what social or political obligations he had, nor much idea where such duties could come from”. Rich or poor, the characters also tend to be veterans of long campaigns of self-indulgence – the baby boomer’s equivalent of war, one of them thinks in “That Was Then”.

Read straight through, the stories evince a limited range of character types. If not some kind of writer, the central figure nearly always works in film, the theatre or television news. He’s sometimes Anglo-Pakistani, but more often isn’t, and in the first few hundred pages he’s likely to be either unhappily married or recently separated. The waning of married love weighs heavily on these men, and the flats they go to for illicit sexual encounters generally have unsatisfactory heating arrangements.

They grow increasingly self-absorbed towards the middle of the book, but while a few lose themselves in cocaine and sex club visits, they mostly start to build more fulfilling relationships, often taking an interest in psychotherapy. By the time of The Body, their partners have started thinking of training as therapists themselves; children have become a source of pleasure, the characters think more searchingly about their own childhoods, and there are greater numbers of grand friends with honours, directorships and New Labour connections.

These stories are like a combination of fine moistured frenzies. We all have them, we all dwell about our life, we all have that schizoid outbreaks when the moon is full, when we worry, when everything is all too much, and all too much is sometimes more connected with no money than with any other needs, but what can you do.

Life is not flawless, you cannot just play ostrich’s hide and seek game or put yourself under your duvet and cry yourself to sleep. I mean, of course you can, but until when to be depressed, unsatisfied and with no lust for life.

These stories are little gems; they have that quality where you always find yourself within them. They are very observation-oriented and very much emphatic. Towards existence, because you can watch the Universe and think romantically a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but let’s face it, it takes guts to live life.

Collected Stories; Kureishi, Hanif; Faber and Faber; Rs. 499

The Arabs by Eugene Rogan

Eugene Rogan’s magisterial, though idiosyncratically selective, “The Arabs: A History” is a dense but worthwhile and illuminating read. Rogan, who spent his childhood in Beirut and Cairo, teaches at Oxford and is Director of the University’s Middle East Centre. He is a former student of Albert Hourani, whose seminal “History of the Arab Peoples,” published in 1993, this book successfully complements.

“The Arabs” is densely packed with facts and dates. It is a plum pudding of a book rather than a crème brulee; it took me about fifty percent longer to read than most books of comparable length. It is not, however, in any way tedious. The narrative has strong forward momentum and is organized (unlike Churchill’s celebrated Savoy pudding) around clear themes. While Rogan writes with a deadpan seriousness, he also enlivens his history with anecdotes (such as the story of the exasperated Algerian Pasha who could not resist striking the French Consul with his fly switch during a heated debate in 1827) and with quotations from contemporary diaries and memoirs. We thus hear directly from the likes of Budhari al Hallaq, an eighteenth century Damascus barber, Rifa’a al-Taktawi, an Egyptian imam who visited Paris in the early nineteenth century and was appalled to observe that “men are slaves to women here…whether they are pretty or not,” and Leila Khaled, a female Palestinian terrorist of the late 1960s.

Rogan begins his history in 1516 (the first example of his selectiveness), with the Ottoman conquest. He then divides Arab history into several phases: the Ottoman reign, the period of Western Colonial intervention, Arab Nationalism, the Cold War, the Rise of Oil, the emergence of Islamism, and the War on Terror. For the Arabs, Rogan observes, history has been one continuous “cycle of subordination to other people’s rules.” The colonial powers’ carve-up of the Arab map into ill-fitting states (especially the Jewish one) has had lasting consequences that will be difficult to untangle. This is his main theme, though he does recognize that “corrupt and authoritarian” indigenous regimes also play a role and that at some point Arabs need to assume greater responsibility for their own destiny if they are to overcome what Samir Kassir, the murdered Lebanese journalist, diagnosed as the “Arab malaise.”

Rogan is not merely selective in the period that he chooses to cover (two thirds of his book focuses on the twentieth century), he also dwells almost entirely on political and military history. There is little sociological exposition of who the “Arabs” are – what, for example, other than Islam and language, have Algerians in common with Syrians; there is little discussion of Arab society, the schism between Sunni and Shia, or indeed the nature of the tribal loyalties that we have witnessed in the recent conflicts in Iraq. The coverage of Saudi Arabia – surely a major factor not only in the region but in the world – is quite perfunctory as is that of Iran, which while not an Arab nation, is a major player – as much as some of the despised Western powers – in the region’s military and political balance and also demonstrates a prototype of the type of Islamic State which would likely appear, as Rogan asserts, if free and fair elections were held today. He does not extrapolate either on how his adverse cycle might be extended by the putative (or Putinative) resurgence of Russia, the emerging geopolitical projection of China, or even, possibly, of Turkey which is slowly re-engaging on the scene.

Does Rogan have an axe to grind? A critical examiner might argue that the tone of disapproval he applies to Israel and the United States (at least pre-Obama) is stronger than that which he directs at Arab strongmen and Palestinian terrorists (or “fighters” as he generally calls them), or that his distaste for British and French colonialism stands in contrast to his mild nostalgia for the Ottoman empire, but this is surely no partisan polemic. Rogan’s book is strongly fact-based, and he provides the reader with ample material and perspective from which to form his or her own judgment. It is part of his mission to explain the Arab point of view and he does this while upholding his professional objectivity.

If Rogan strikes any wrong note, it is surely in his conclusion. He claims to see grounds for hope, the “very beginnings of a virtuous circle.” This optimism is hardly supported by his portrait of precarious authoritarian regimes holding down the lid on latent Islamist takeovers, with outside powers continuing to toss banana skins into the mix and the Arabs themselves still subject to a sort of Al Sod’s law in their own efforts (witness the disaster of Dubai World). Nor is it consistent with his comment in his Introduction (admittedly some 500 pages previously) that “the Arab World views the future with growing pessimism.” This is especially true if one defines the goal, as Rogan does in his Epilogue, as “human rights and accountable government, security and economic growth.” Ha!

Arabs, The; Rogan, Eugene; Allan Lane; Penguin Press; £30.00

The Gallow’s Curse by Karen Maitland

Like Karen Maitland’s other two books, Company of Liars and The Owl Killers (both great, by the way), this is a complex, labyrinthine mystery set in medieval England. The Interdict of 1208 forms the background for the plot, which concerns two main characters. The first is Elena, a 15-year-old serving girl who becomes a runaway, and later finds herself tricked into prostitution, after she’s accused of killing her own baby. The second is Raffaelle, a tortured, revenge-hungry lord who is forced out of his manor by the brothers he holds responsible for his own agonies during the Crusades, as well as those of his late best friend and master Gerard. There are twists, turns and deaths galore as Raffaelle and Elena; both separately and together, attempt to outwit the treacherous Osborn and Hugh, making plenty of friends and enemies along the way.

Having enjoyed the author’s previous novels so much, I expected a lot from The Gallows Curse, and it didn’t disappoint. The characters are wonderful. Elena seems to be a bit of a cliché at first (innocent, beautiful young girl who has just about every tragedy possible thrown at her and survives despite the odds) but I found myself warming to her more and more as the story went on. As you see the horror and loneliness of life as a runaway villain and an unwilling whore through Elena’s eyes, you end up rooting for her to make it through and get revenge on her tormentors. In Raffaelle, meanwhile, Maitland has created a fascinating, flawed, contradictory antihero and probably my favourite character of all the books I’ve read recently. He’s simultaneously repulsive and entrancing, hateful and heroic. He does some awful and some great things; he pays dearly for his sins and for attempting to selflessly help others, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that many of his actions are motivated purely by his lust for Elena. Yet I ended up feeling more sympathy for the character than I would have, had he been unbelievably ‘perfect’.

The glimpses into the characters’ pasts and memories are fantastic, and really make the whole story feel fleshed out. The plot has everything – violent deaths, sexual deviance, witchcraft, spying/treason, prophetic dreams, a collection of caged exotic animals, shed-loads of dark secrets and plenty of daring escapes, all against the backdrop of a 13th-century England depicted so vividly you can almost taste it. I love the way Maitland works elements of the supernatural into the plot without fanfare, so seamlessly you can easily believe magical beings and powerful witches really existed as part of everyday life back in medieval times (the story is part-narrated by a mandrake, and one of many subplots involves a pair of cunning women with an ancient grudge). What’s more, the action-packed ending is a knockout. If there are flaws, they’re to do with repetition in the language. The characters utter the same curses over and over again (God’s blood, Satan’s arse etc…), and the words ‘stench’ and ‘stink’ are repeated way too much – we get it, the Middle Ages weren’t particularly fragrant. But overall, such minor flaws didn’t do much to dent my enjoyment of the book overall.

While at first I missed certain elements from Maitland’s other books – the variety of first-person narrators from The Owl Killers, the wide cast of eccentric characters from Company of Liars – I think this new tale may be her best yet. I was riveted throughout the book, and upon finishing it my instinct was to jump right back to the beginning and start all over again. I would recommend Maitland’s novels to anyone interested in historical fiction; as well as being compelling and obviously very well-researched; they’re also darkly funny, full of surprises and undeniably entertaining.

The Gallow’s Curse; Maitland, Karen; Penguin UK; £12.99