Archive for April 2009
A book review for the Guardian:
Syria, more than most, is a land of stories and storytellers. The farmers and shopkeepers describe early Islamic battles or episodes from the Crusades as if they’d attended in person. A gathering of friends is quickly elevated into group performance of jokes, laments, myths, and conspiracies. Even the Syrians’ surnames suggest stories: there are families called The-Milk’s-Boiled, Sip-The-Yoghurt, and Undone-Belt. “The deeper you swim into our stories,” a village rhetorician once told me, “the more you understand that they have no floor.”
Yet Syria is better known for its poets, and its TV dramas, than for its novelists. Egypt, with its unending metropolis, is the home of the Arabic novel, and Egypt produced the Arabs’ master of fiction, Naguib Mahfouz. But a flame equally bright now burns from Damascus, via Germany. Here is the Great Syrian Novel, and its author Rafik Schami.
In “The Dark Side of Love” Schami exploits all the resources of the classic realist novel and then goes a little further, forging a new form out of Syrian orality. His basic unit is not chapter or paragraph, but story; a thousand bejewelled anecdotes and tales are buried here, ready to spring, but each is sculpted with such dazzling surety into the whole that reading the book is always compulsive. In its final, self-exposing passage, Schami compares his method to mosaic work, in which every shiny object is a beauty of itself, yet which in combination, at a distance, reveal a still greater beauty. The novel is even Tolstoyan in its marrying of the personal, social and political spheres, of private with national life.
I don’t quite know why, but hypocrisy is the element in political discourse which catalyses my most murderous responses. Perhaps it’s because I like language, or respect it, and believe it shouldn’t be raped.
I remember Tony Blair making a speech in Gaza in November 2001. This is when I realised for certain that he was not a mere fool but a dangerous and filthy murderer. Away from the hall and its selected attendees, for the visiting dignitary’s comfort, a demonstration against British Zionism was being violently suppressed. And at that very moment British warplanes were ravaging Afghan villages. And Blair lectured his audience, representatives of those who’d been hounded and attacked for six decades, in the following terms: What you people must understand, he squeaked, is that no cause, however just you think it may be, justifies violence. Not a flicker of irony nor a trace of self-doubt wrinkled his ugly face.
Notes for a talk to the Dumfries Writers Group tonight. It’s pretty narcissistic, but narcissism is what I do. I’ll also talk about the practicalities of finding an agent and a publisher, and about blogging.
Where does the urge to write come from?
It comes from the fear of death. From where all human effort beyond eating comes from. Maybe eating too. But the fear of death is only one way to say it. Writing is the attempt to control what can’t be controlled, to impose pattern on confusion, to battle time by recording it, to immortalise thought and sensation, and so to make them sacred. A vain but very human enterprise.
The film director Werner Herzog said, “I believe you can discover a very deep, ecstatic truth by fabricating.” I’m not sure what this means, but I’m sure I agree with it.
Also, for me, fabrication is a channel for passion which might otherwise express itself as anger.