The Booker international special confinement review

And the Winner is:

Blocked at home thanks to the COVID, I thought: make this an opportunity .

So I’ve read the six shortlisted novels, written articles and debated extensively with myself and here are the conclusions.


The two South American books, very different in style, the poetic self discovery of China Iron contrasts with the crude realism of Hurricane Season but they share themes, poverty, cruelty, escapism through alcohol and drugs and the contrast of machism with homosexuality.


Tyll shares with China Iron taking their sources, the characters of Tyll and China from historical sources and using their stories to tell of the histories of Europe and Argentina.


The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, through a story told, steeped in magic and ghosts , the influence of the Zoastrians, tells us the recent history of Iran and the terrible impact of the revolution and its oppressive regime on the people.


The memory police, is a stripped back yet allegorical story of a future and its past, about an oppressive regime and the faint hope that remains in the people.


And finally, The Discomfort of evening, a painful and disturbing book about the investigation and non acceptance of death in a young adolescent living in a hard line Reform community.


For the strength and depth of the story, re-visiting La Vuelta de Martin Fierro and the birth of Argentina from a new angle, the cruelty of the Hispanics, the instrumentalisation of the Gouchos and the poetic style, The adventures of China Iron is for me a clear winner.

Nancy Huston ‘Fault Lines’


One thing my parents agree on is that no one should hit me, smack me or give me any type of corporal punishment. It’s because they’ve read a lot of books where beaten children become violent parents, abused children become paedophiles and children who have been raped become whores and pimps. So they say that it’s always important to talk and talk and talk, to ask a child why he’s behaving badly and to let him explain before showing him gently how to choose to act in a more appropriate manner next time. Never hit him.***


We met Nancy Huston at a book event in Massy back in 2012 along with Mohamed Kacimi. It only took me two years to read the Kacimi but despite the fact that she had dedicated her book it took me eight years to get around to reading this powerful work. A couple of words on Nancy Huston, she is Canadian and writes in French and English, she also translates her own books, a not so common feat.

Onto the book, Huston tells us the story of a family spanning four generations, it couldn’t span five, and the impact the previous generations have on the next generations, the sudden shifts in the tectonic plates of their family’s history that shakes their life. She tells the story backwards as we see the effects before we learn of the causes. In the four generations there are four narrators, with each narrator being six years old at the time of the events he relates, the story begins then with Sol, a child of the twenty first century living in California who tells us in the opening quotes about his education. The two seismic events in his six year old life are the operation he has to remove a benign birth mark from the temple region of his head and the visit to Munich with his parents, his grand mother and his great grandmother to visit this latest’s sister.

His father Randall’s life is up ended in 1982 when his mother Sadie, a converted Jew insists on taking her family from Manhattan to Haïfa as she pursues her doctorate studies concerning the second world war. His father Aron, did not want to leave Manhattan. Randall  quickly picks up Hebrew and befriends a Palestinian girl at his school, but this is the time of the war in Lebenon and the Sabra and Shatila massacre where the Israeli Defense force at best stood by and did not intevene. These were confusing times for this intelligent six year old who wanted to show his mother, Sadie, that he understood what was happening around him:


I really liked the moment where Samson is so angry with Delilah for her treachery the he pushes apart the columns of the temple until the building colapses killing everybody. “It’s just like the human bombs in Israel at the moment!” I say, proud to show granny that I know a little bit about her country, but she shakes her head as she says: ” No, not at all, it’s really not the same thing at all!”***


We then follow Sadie in 1962, the year she leaves her strict grand parents in Toronto to live with her mother, Kristina, who is on the brink of becoming a famous singer, singing with sounds but not words, In Manhattan. Sadie is a very insecure child partly due to her grandparents who’s favourite dish is “culpability” as Kristina tells her, and Sadie also has a birthmark but on her bottom. Sadie’s life begins to settle into normalness, as she tells us of her sunday mornings spent with her stepfather, Peter, a Jew, in delicatessens. And then one sunday when Peter is away a stranger turns up speaking with a heavy accent and she hears her mother speaking in a foreign language. Her life is blown apart by what happens.

And finally back to Kristina’s story and the sounds without words.

A book about violence barbary and the energy of the narrators despite this, at the age of 6 and after. If you can find it, read it!

First Published in French as “Lignes de Faille” in 2006, in France by Actes Sud
Translated into english by Nancy Huston and published as “Fault Lines” by Black Cat in 2008
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Une chose sur laquelle mes parents sont d’accord, c’est que personne ne doit me taper, me fesser ou m’infliger toute autre forme de châtiment corporel. C’est parce qu’ils ont lu beaucoup de livres où on voit les enfants battus se transformer en parents violents, les enfants abusés en pédophiles et les enfants violés en putes et macs. Alors ils disent que c’est important de toujours parler, parler, parler, demander à l’enfant quelles sont les motivations pour sa mauvaises conduite et le laisser s’expliquer avant de lui montrer, gentiment, comment faire un choix plus approprié la prochaine fois. Ne jamais le frapper.

J’apprécie surtout le moment où Samson est tellement furieux contre Dalila pour sa trahison qu’il pousse les colonnes du temple jusqu’à ce que l’édifice s’écroule sur lui en tuant tout le monde. “C’est comme les bombes humaines en Israël en ce moment!” Je dis, fier de montrer à mamie que je connais un peu son pays, mais elle secoue la tête en disant: “Pas du tout! Ce n’est pas du tout la même chose!”

Juli Zeh ‘Empty Hearts’


“Let me talk to Babak for a minute,” says Britta. “It’s about business.” “No talking, not now. I’m calling to tell you to stay calm. This probably has nothing at all to do with us.” “Didn’t you see that—” “Of course, it’s possible I saw a suicide belt, but I’m not certain. The news reports aren’t clear. Stay calm, spend your evening with your family, don’t log on to the Internet. Everything the same as usual. Okay? We’ll talk tomorrow.” “Okay.” “Until morning, then.”


Juli Zeh enjoys taking quirks or faults in our society, in the relationships between people and pushing them that little bit further such as in my recently reviewed Unterleuten where she takes the suppressed feelings in a village and pushes the people over the edge. Here in Empty Hearts, set in the near future her main idea is at once simple and twisted, as the book begins, Britta is at home with her family and some friends when a foiled terrorist attack takes place at the airport cargo terminal live on TV and Britta has an emotional response that her husband tries to reduce by explanation:


Is it one of your patients?” Richard and the others know that occasionally one of The Bridge’s clients “does something stupid,” as Britta puts it. When that happens, she acts devastated for a couple of days, while the other three strive to console her, assuring her that she bears no guilt, reminding her that her therapeutic success rate is higher than ninety percent. “They’re just people,” Richard usually says in such cases. “You can try to help them, but there’s only so much you can do.”


This is where we understand that Britta has some sort of involvement with people at risk. Her immediate reaction when she then telephones her work partner Babak lets us understand that her involvement in what has happened is far from straightforward as illustrated in the opening quote. We soon understand the basic premise of the book, which is then developed into the story. The Bridge, Britta’s company, has developed software to trace people who are suicide risks and then puts them through a twelve point psychological program to help them back into society, these people are often thankful and make the donations they live from. The Bridge has a near 90% success rate, but what happens to the 10%? These are the Bridges real business as we learn that they are in fact a service company supplying these people to terrorist organisations from which they make considerably more money, the immerged part of the iceberg.

From the initial terrorist action at the start of the book, whose perpetrators were not from the Bridge, Britta’s life begins to spin out of control in this fascinating thriller.

First Published in German as “Leere Herzen” in 2017 by Luchterhand Literaturverlag.
Translated into English by John Cullen and published as “Empty Hearts” in 2017 by Nan A. Talese

Caryl Férey ‘Paz’


“She had begun with the classic sites such as Meetic,and had only met fools. blokes that turned up late or others full of talk that wanted to skip the niceties and get down to business, blowhards, emotionless, husbands paying in cash, machos pretending to be messed up, it was all too weird. img_1978Gradually Diana had gone for Tinder. At least things were clear: a flick of the finger to the right you stay, to the left you’re gone. A straightforward relationship instead of love and a near guarantee to get laid. In her forties she didn’t have time to hang around in bars, her friends were hooked up, or she’d already slept with them, she knew all of their friends and had sworn never to go out with a journalist again.”


Paz is Ferey’s latest Roman noir, set in modern Columbia, and as he explins, scratch anything set in modern day Columbia and you’ll find the past is waiting to erupt. The book begins with mutilated bodies turning up in cities before an election and the police trying to keep the lid on events. The story centres around the Bagader family. Quiet, intense, secret Lautaro the head of the police, his father Saul, the interior minister and his brother Angel, who dissapeared years ago. As the first bodies appear, so badly mutilated, resembling some of the worst events of the terror known as the “Violencia” years earlier as with American money and support, the year’s long “Plan for Colubia” pitched the army against the FARC and also against the drug lords and their militias.

Lautaro, whose wife had died in a FARC bombing and who had then headed up one of the groups fighting the FARC on the ground, and is now head of the police is emotionally damaged goods, one night as usual he brings back a woman chosen from Tinder, “wearing the number 12 shirt” as he refers to her, Diana, from the opening quote. They know nothing about each other, he the head of police and she a commited investigative journalist.

Pressure builds up on Lautaro to end the violence, he doesn’t know if the drug lords or the FARC soldiers who refuse the negotiated peace are responsible for the wave of killings, with some of the bodies appearing to have injuries that suggest that they have been thrown live from planes. He can investigate the drug lords but is unable to appear in the FARC areas of Columbia.

Lautaro decides, without telling his father, to recontact his brother, who we learn had originally dissappeared to fight against the government and had been captured by the special forces. But at the same time Diana manages to track down Angel…….

Setting this intriguing story in Columbia required a great deal of work on the recent history of this country and once again after “Mapucho” or “Zulu”, previous books by Férey this was gripping from start to end and the 500 pages allows a deep dive into the recent history of this country.

First Published in French as “Paz” in 2019 by Gallimard (Série noir)
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Elle avait commencé par les sites classiques, genre Meetic, et n’avait rencontré que des cons. Les types arrivaient en retard, d’aures baratinaient pour passer directement au dessert, des vantards, des pisse-froid, des mariés qui payaient en liquide, des machos masqués qui jouaient aux esquintés, c’en devenaient tordant. Avec le temps, Diana avait opté pour Tinder. au moins les choses étaient claires: un mouvement d’index à droite, tu restes, à gauche tu disparais. Un rapport simple à défaut d’amour, et un maximum de coups assurés. Les quadras comme elle n’avaient pas le loisir de traîner dans les bars, ses amis étaient en couple, ou elle avait déjà couché avec, elle connaissait tous leurs proches et s’était juré de ne plus sortir avec un journaliste.

 

Jonathan Coe ‘Middle England’


‘She couldn’t stand politicians,’ Colin said, bringing some subterranean train of thought to the surface, and not needing to specify who he meant by ‘she’. He spoke in a low voice, thick with regret and repressed emotion. ‘Thought they were all as bad as each other. All on the fiddle, every one of them. Fiddling their expenses, not declaring their interests, holding down half a dozen jobs on the side …’ Benjamin nodded, while remembering that in fact it was Colin himself, not his late wife, who was obsessed with the venality of politicians.


Jonathan Coe has chosen the Trotter Family and their Birmingham base from his previous books, The Rotters Club and The Closed Circle, as the medium to study Pre and early Post Brexit Britain, the latent differences between the Leavers and the Remainers, that were waiting to be cleaved open. The opening quote from Colin Trotter, Benjamin Trotters father, maybe in his eighties, is of course something you can hear in any democracy in the world, squeaky clean is rare and of course this sort of resentment is like dry tinder.

Basically the fifty somethings in this book were not too interested or informed, typified by Benjamin who was too interested in his own navel and too timid to even have an opinion or his friend Doug, a freelance journalist who writes articles under severe time pressure, even his 16 year old daughter Coriander can see he is out of touch with what is happening in the country. But amongst all of the strands in this book, The Brexit story and its strife is carried by Sophie Trotter, Benjamin’s niece, in her early thirties and the man she chooses to marry, Ian who she meets on a driving training course after being caught speeding. This was never going to be a straightforward marriage. After Ian is injured in the Birmingham riots and Sophie drives his mother to the hospital, the tooothpaste is let out of the tube. Yes there is rascism, and resentment but maybe only that:


“Where will it end Sophie where will it all end this dreadful business end”?
Of course Sophie knew what she meant by this dreadful business but it was the middle of a quiet Saturday afternoon in august they were driving along the A435 not far from the Wivel roundabout and the sun shone placidly on the roofs of cars, the traffic signs, the petrol stations, the hedgerows, the pubs, the garden centres, the convenience stores, all the familiar landmarks of modern England. It was hard at that moment to see the world as a dreadful place or a very inspiring one for that matter, she was about to formulate some bland response, oh you know, life goes on , these things blow over after a while, when Helena added
“He was quite tight you know rivers of blood, he was the only one brave enough to say it”.
Sophie froze when she heard these words and the platitudes died on her lips. The silence that opened up between her and Helena was fathomless now, here it was after all the subject that wouldn’t, couldn’t be discussed the subject that provided people more than any other, mortified people more than any other, because to bring it up was to strip off your own clothes, and tear off the other persons clothes and to be forced to stare at each other naked, unprotected with no way of averting your eyes any reply she made to Helena at this moment, any reply that showed her own differing views would immediately mean confronting the unspeakable truth that sophie and everyone like her, and Helena and everyone like her, might be living cheek by jowl in the same country but they also lived in different universes and these universies were separated by a wall infinitely high, impermeable, a wall built out of fear and suspicion and even perhaps those most English of all qualities shame and embarrassment. Impossible to face this, the only practical thing to do was to ignore it, but for how long was that practical in fact?


Both Sophie and Ian suffer career setbacks, Ian, an alpha male loses out on a promotion to a woman, an Asian woman and he fosters resentment, a feeling of having had something that should have been his taken away by the PC crowd. Sophie is called out on Twitter by Coriander for something seemingly innocent telling a transgender student who had dithered on an essay between two choices, that she couldn’t make her mind up. Sophie was suspended pending an investigation, as Ian says Guilty until proven innocent. Ian and his mother cannot understand that Sophie is not bitter about this. And the added pressure of The Brexit debate tears their marriage apart, or was it always going to end this way:


Their relationship councillor Lorna told them that many of the couples she was seeing at the moment had mentioned Brexit as a key factor in their growing estrangement. Now I usually start by asking each of you the same question. Sophie, why are you so angry that Ian voted leave and Ian why are you so angry that Sophie voted remain? Sophie had thought for a long time before answering, I suppose because it makes me think that as a person he’s not as open as I thought he was, that his basic model for a relationship comes down to antagonism and competition not cooperation. Lorna had nodded and turned to Ian who said it makes me think that she’s very naive that she lives in a bubble and can’t see how other people around her might have a different opinion to hers and this gives a certain attitude an attitude of moral superiority. To which Lorna had said, what’s interesting about both those answers is that neither of you mentioned politics.


A long and relatively verbiose book, but you know what you’re getting when you buy a Coe. This book is maybe the analysis needed to begin the slow process of being able to live together, having different opinions and who knows, respecting opposite points of view. But don’t hold your breath.

First Published in English as “Middle England” in 2019 by Penguin Books Ltd.

Peter Hannington ‘A Single Source’


Nawal tried to remember when she’d stopped being scared. A few weeks ago she would have turned tail at the sight of a police van–the smallest hint of trouble. 2B6816D8-026B-40D9-B167-8AC87892C425Now, when she heard sirens and the swell of noise coming from the other side of Tahrir, from close to the governing party headquarters, she shouldered her rucksack and practically ran in that direction.


In this story centred around the Arab spring in Tahrir Square, the second book by Peter Hannington, with the reporter William Carver at the centre, Hannington, an ex-BBC reporter himself tells us how big stories and scoops come together in the modern age where anyone with a smartphone can monitor events or report them. There are four themes  to this story, firstly the events in Tahrir Square where Carver, arriving ahead of the field, makes contact through a young girl on the hotel staff who helps him unofficially with translations with Nawal, an active participant in the events unfolding in the square, see the opening quote, but also a Twitter source:


@tsquarelawan New Cairo Hospital needs help. Anyone with blood type O please go. Big shortage of type O!


The second theme playing out in parallel is the story of Gabriel and Gebre, two Eritreans trying to join Europe where we meet them as they are talking with the first link in the chain of human smugglers who will cheat them along the way:


I told old Gabriel that I would treat you well; that the price he has paid will be the total price. I promised him this.’ Gebre studied Mr Adam. He wondered what this man’s promise was worth. ‘So, you two will not get the normal trip … you will get the VIP trip, you understand?


The third theme plays out in London between the permanent secretary to the defence minister and his press officer, Robert Mariscal, an ex-journalist and colleague of Carvers gone over to the dark side, payed to put spin on information for the press. And finally the fourth theme is Carver himself, the newshound, known for losing interest in any story that becomes mainstream.

When Nawal inadvertently tips off Carver to a story within the story concerning supplying the regime with a capability to fight the demonstrators, how much danger will this place her in? Just how far will The permanent secretary back the wealthy and influential  defence contractors through his press officer? Is Robert Mariscal now totally engaged in his role as a press officer despite his journalistic background.

In the modern day version of the slave trade that is people smuggling, some things don’t change and when the brothers learn that the smugglers are making money on more than one leg of their triangular trade, from Eritrea to Libya, from Libya to Egypt and from Egypt to Eritrea, what would it take for them to want to tell anyone?

And finally, how far is Carver prepared to go for a story risking not only his life but the lives of those associated to his scoop?

This story kept a realistic feel to it throughout, a readable thriller.

First Published in English as “A Single Source” in 2019 by Two Roads.
*** my translation

Jeniffer Egan ‘Manhattan Beach’


He eyed Kerrigan, searching for the weakness. Money wasn’t his object, or he’d have demanded it before singing. What, then? In a mick it was usually booze,but Kerrigan hadn’t the look of a lush. Nor was there much propensity for violence in those scrappy limbs, though he’d likely fight hard in self-defense. Women? Micks were famously prudish, faithful to their blowsy wives—perhaps recalling the bonny colleens they’d been before the assembly line of children, or from fear of their drunken, bellicose priests.


Anna’s Father, Eddie Kerrigan was a trusted bag carrier for Irish organised crime around Manhattan beach, he could be trusted not to be noticed as he carried money from one place to the next. The book opens at a pivotal moment in his life as, on a Sunday, he meets up with Dexter Styles, looking to make the next step up and work for the Italians proposing, as we learn later in the book, to watch Styles’ different operations, not being noticed, and spot the people that were cheating him. Styles eyed up Kerrigan to try to understand his motives as illustrated in the opening quote. Kerrigan had gone to Styles’ house with his daughter Anna who was only eight years old at the time and we see what is happening in this adult world through Anna’s eyes.

In early 1930’s America Anna was living at home with her parents and her seriously crippled sister, where their only fun in life was the occasional visits from her aunt, Brianne whose stories only Anna believed:


“And the trumpeter?” he asked. “Oh, he’s a real lover boy. Curls like Rudy Vallee.” She would need money again soon enough. Brianne was long past her dancing days, and even then her chief resource had always been her beaus. But fewer men were flush now, and a girl with bags under her eyes and a boozy roll at the waist was less likely to land one. Eddie found a way to give his sister money whenever she asked, even if it meant borrowing from the shylock. He dreaded what she might become otherwise.


And then one day Eddie disappears for good. Fast forward and Anna is working for the war effort at Manhattan beach where she dreams of becoming a diver working on war ships and when she finally gets to meet Lieutenant Axel who could make her wishes come true she comes up full against anti female prejudice:


“You’re interested,” Lieutenant Axel said, gazing up at Anna as she stood before his desk. He’d not risen when the marine had shown her into his office. “Yes, sir,” she said. “Extremely interested.” “And what gave you the impression that diving would be interesting?” She hesitated, not entirely sure. “I’ve watched divers on the barge,” she said. “From Pier C. At lunchtime. And after my shift.” She followed each utterance with a pause, awaiting some indication that he had understood. “You’ve watched the divers at lunchtime,” he finally said. As this was not a question, and as her words, reverberated through Lieutenant Axel, had a way of sounding ridiculous,


Anna, whilst working at the docks was one of the few women who were not married, not being trusted entirely by the ‘marrieds’, she meets up with Nell, another single woman who the one day disappears and Anna the finds her at a night club where she finds that single women working on the docks can find other ways easier ways to get by:


“I haven’t any job at all,” Nell said. “Unless you count trying to look smashing all the time so Hammond doesn’t toss me out.” They seated themselves among a group who occupied several tables near the dance floor. Anna noticed Marco and reddened when he looked in her direction. But he was watching Nell. “Would he really throw you out?” Anna whispered. “Hammond is a pig,” Nell said, which dumbfounded Anna, Hammond himself being inches away, his arm around Nell’s shoulders. Anna averted her gaze as if she’d been guilty of an indiscretion. “Then why do you—” “Money,” Nell said brightly. “He’s loaded with money, and he pays for everything. He lives in an eight-bedroom mansion in Rye, New York, with his wife and four children. He’ll never leave them—I was nuts to think he would. Isn’t that right, darling,” she called to Hammond. “Anna worked with me at the Naval Yard. Hammond doesn’t like to hear about that. He thinks girls shouldn’t work at all; they should just dream up new ways to entrance him.”


It is then at this club that she meets Dexter Styles, for the first time since that day at his house on Manhattan beach, using a false name so that he doesn’t link her to Eddie. As she better gets to know Styles, her knew life diving and her quest for her disappeared father lead her and Styles to the truth about her father. In parallel Styles is asked to take Badger from Chicago under his wing and is amazed at his naivety:


Dexter marveled at his insolence. It made him grasp something that had eluded him until that instant: Badger thought he was protected. He’d mistaken Mr. Q.’ s helping hand for immunity of some kind—apparently unaware that Mr. Q.’ s own brother had vanished in the course of his ascent, along with at least two cousins. This misapprehension explained Badger’s exaggerated deference toward Dexter, the twist of mockery inside it.


But then the wheel turns full circle and called late at night to a boathouse by one of Mr. Q.’s sons, Dexter finds himself in the same position with Badger as Eddie had with him all those years ago.

There are twists in this story and so I don’t think there was a spoiler yet here in Jennifer piece of historical fiction. An interesting and well researched story.

First Published in English as “Manhattan Beach” in 2017 by Scribner.

Sam Byers ‘Perfidious Albion’


Its only right that we should try to share what we have with those who have less. But what we have in Britain now is a society that asks those who work to share their earnings with those that scrounge; those who have grown up here to share their hard-fought space with those that have just arrived; and those who deserve their place to share it with those who merely envy it.


Sam Buyers’ Perfidious Albion is a dark satire on post Brexit Britain, his story takes place in Edmunsbury, a small town in southeastern Britain where at the outset the town is trying to redefine itself, the story opens at a party at Jacques DeCoverley’s where we meet a varying group of people that have left London and are trying to be someone in the opinion-sphere, from DeCoverley who writes about pavements to Robert, a left leaning blogger and his girlfriend Jess, the main protagonist of the book, the narrator observes her situation, for example:


Jess popped to the toilet to tweet. Back in the room, an assortment of indistinct men – bearded and earnest and flushed with credentials – talked at her or for her, but never quite to her.


Jess, after having been seriously abused online had set up multiple false identities for blogging such as Byron Stroud who had become very influential within the opinion-sphere, partly because he only wrote about the opinion-sphere and Julia Benjamin, a feminist, who had become the main online critic of Jess’ boyfriend Robert.

The Larchwood estate, a failing housing project, worth much more empty than with its current residents is being emptied and then Buyers Paints a none too flattering picture of the opportunistic right wing party, England Always, and its local representative Hugo Bennington with the opening quote representing one of his initial quotes. Through the events within the book, Buyers by way of satire, deconstructs the use of fear and through this the linked subjects of violence and race by opportunistic right-wing political parties, for instance the analysis of audience response by his assistant Teddy:


‘That spike is just a huge upsurge up people calling me a twat the moment I appeared on television.’
‘Isn’t it amazing?’
‘How is that amazing?’
‘Because it’s free publicity. You can’t buy this kind of amplification, Hugo.’
‘But it’s negative publicity.’
‘No such thing. Negative publicity is like antimatter. It’s an urban myth.’
‘I don’t think antimatter is an urban myth Teddy.’
‘Alright then, show me some antimatter.’
‘Well, obviously I can’t show you some antimatter, because it’s—’
‘Right. If you can’t show it to me, it doesn’t exist. You see what I’m saying? It might very well actually exist, but to all intents and purposes, it doesn’t.’


There is a tentacular secretive tech firm in Edmunsbury which are at the centre of much of the intrigue and for which Buyers tells us something of Jess’ and of course probably his own view of modern corruption:


Jess wasn’t sure when the architectural love affair with glass was going to come to an end but whenever it was it wouldn’t be soon enough. As politics and commerce had become murkier, so the buildings in which vital transactions took place had become ever more resplendently clear, as if recognizing that in the flattened homogeneity of the present all actions, both benign and malicious, now looked the same: a squint at a screen, a series of keystrokes, the choreography of global espionnage now no different to the microritual of online shopping.


And finally in the build up there is Robert, a none too successful blogger for an online newsletter trying to get by and being manoeuvred by a mixture between his own ambition to exist and his editor:


‘People are being lied to. People are being intimidated. Are you trying to tell me people don’t want to read about—’
‘They want to read about things that are cool, funny or evil. That’s the holy trinity.’


The powder keg is then ready and waiting for the spark, which is provided by an unfortunate tweet as Trina, a coloured worker at the techfirm when watching Bennington can’t listen anymore and tweets #whitemalegenocide. lol. This is the spark that leads to the chain of events where the true satire really gets underway with the instrumentalisation of this tweet.

A very much up to date biting satire following in the tradition of Tom Sharp.

First Published in English as “Perfidious Albion” in 2018 by Faber & Faber.

Tahar Ben Jelloun ‘Marriage of Pleasure’


For once, this evening I’m going to tell you a story of love, an overwhelming impossible love, lived fully until their last breathe by each of these characters. But as you will see, behind this miraculous story there is hate, contempt, wickedness and cruelty. Its normal, that’s how people are. I preferred you should know so that nothing would surprise you.***


In the city of Fès in Morocco, each spring, a storyteller sets up his equipment and waits for a crowd to form, this is how Ben Jelloun’s tale of three generations of a Marocain family begins, and then to further warn us and thus distance us from the substance of the story , he tells if of its contents as illustrated in the opening quote. The story then pulls us in. The storyteller, Goya, tells us of a pious and upright merchant in the 1940’s, Amin, whose father and grandfather before him, have for generations made the two week trip to Dakar in Senegal by train then wagon and finally by camel where they passed several months negotiating spices and had contracted pleasure marriages whilst there. Amin who wished to respect the rules of Islam then consults the Moulay Ahmad, a professor of theology:


Moulay Ahmad reassured him. He quoted verse 24 of the sourate “women” : “you have the obligation to use your wealth to marry honourably and not to live in common law. It is a requirement that you hand over the arranged dowry to she with whom you have entered into marriage…” in other words, it is legal for a man away from home for long periods, to enter into a marriage of “pleasure”, “of enjoyment”, “of well being”, which guarantees the wife a dowry and the respect of the one she marries. God established this to fight against prostitution.***


This is the the basis of the story, each time Amin goes to Senegal he contracts a “pleasure marriage” with Nabou, a young Peul, with whom he discovers a sexual freedom and satisfaction he has never known with his first “white” wife the Lalla Fatma. After one trip he cannot imagine leaving her and decides to bring her back to Fès as his second wife. Goya in several parts of the story lets us understand how difficult this may be, he tells us of the slave market in Fès that was active until a few decades prior to the story, of the way the peasants from the land when they fall on hard times are used as unpaid cooks and helpers by the méchants of Fès, of stories of other African wives that are brought back to Morocco and used as sex slaves and how even the well meaning men have no stay over the way the first, “white” wife runs the house. As if to confirm this as Lalla Fatma says:


You’ve brought into this house, misfortune, evil and discord, you want to marry a servant, a negress whose skin colour betrays the darkness of her soul, but does she even have a soul? I wonder. And finally you’re a disappointment, do whatever you will! I’ll take care of my children’s education, I’ll keep them away from that wicked, stinking thing. You’re neither the first nor the last to risk a family for a negress allied to Satan. God is great.***


Nabou then gives birth to twins, one black and one white, Hassan and Houcine. From the treatment of Nabou and that of her sons we follow the differences in racial treatment of her two sons, of Houcine’s integration and of Hassan’s difficulties. Discrimination seem to improve with time over the decades until the wheel comes full circle and faced with the mass migration across Marocco of Africans towards Europe, the attitude to these darker skinned Africans hardens until one day Nabou’s grandson and Hassan’s son, Salim, is rounded up with other people of the same skin colour and deported to Senegal where after some time discovering his grandmother’s roots he sets off on foot for Europe.

First Published in French as “Le Marriage de Plaisir” in 2016 by Gallimard
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Une fois n’est pas coutume, ce soir je m’en vais vous conter une histoire d’amour, un amour fou et impossible pourtant vécu jusqu’au dernier souffle par chacun de ses personnages. Mais comme vous le verrez, derrière cette histoire miraculeuse, il y a aussi beaucoup de haine et de mépris, de méchanceté et de cruauté. C’est normal. L’homme est ainsi. Je préférais que vous le sachiez pour que vous ne vous étonniez de rien.

…Moulay Ahmad le rassura. Il lui cita le verset 24 de la sourate “Les femmes” : “… il vous est loisible d’utiliser vos biens pour vous marier honnêtement et non pour vivre en concubinage. C’est une obligation pour vous de remettre la dot convenue à celle avec laquelle vous aurez consommé le mariage…” Autrement dit, il est légal, pour un homme absent de son foyer pour de longues périodes, de contracter un mariage “de plaisir”, “de jouissance”, “de bien-être”, qui garantit à la femme une dot et le respect de celui qui l’a épousée. Dieu a institué cela pour lutter contre la prostitution.

Tu as fait entrer dans cette maison le malheur, le péché et la discorde, tu veux épouser une domestique, une négresse dont la couleur de peau trahit sa noirceur d’âme, mais a-t-elle une âme? Je me le demande enfin tu es décevant fais ce que tu veux moi je m’occuperai de l’éducation de mes enfants je les tiendrai loin de cette chose mal faisant, mal odorant, tu es ni le premier ni le dernier à mettre en péril toute une famille pour une négresse alliée de satan. Dieu est grand.

Zia Haider Rahman ‘In The Light of What We Know’


Before 9/11, I was invisible, unsexed. How is it that after 9/11 suddenly I was noticed. Not just noticed but attractive, given the second look, sized up, even winked at? img_1515Was that the incidental effect of no longer being a piece with the background, of being noticed, or was it sicker than that? Was this person among us no longer the meek Indian, the meek Pakistani, the sepoy, but fully man? Before 9/11, I was hidden behind the wall of colonial guilt after having been emasculated by a history of subjugation.


It’s 2008 and there’s a knock on the door of the narrators home in south Kensington he answers to an unkempt skinny brown skinned man who he doesn’t initially recognise, but is his best friend who had dropped off of the radar ten years earlier. Here is a story told slowly over time in a series of one on one discussions in the narrators home by Zafar to his friend. Both are first generation arrivals from South East Asia, but with very different backgrounds thet earlier, as friends, the narrator had never really explored. He came from a rich Pakistani family with powerful connections and links to the military which of course Zafar knew, we then learn together that Zafar’s family came from Bangladesh, once East Pakistan and we are told of the difficulties between the two regions from the outset:


Even the name of the new nation, the most loyal expression of a people’s language, it’s label, was an act of exclusion and subordination. The préfabrication of one Choudhary Rahmat Ali: P, Punjab. A, Afghania, K Kashmir, and the -stan, the annexe of land, land of the PAK, with an anaptyxic epenthetic i, don’t you know, just to root the acronym in the land, all of which made a neat little pun, Land of the Pure, the Muslims, while it brought together its constituent peoples. Only it didn’t. Where were the Bengalis? Where was the B? 1000 miles of India between them. Surely not left out merely because the pun wouldn’t work but never conceived as a piece of the country, a part of the main. Next in 1948, the West made Urdu the sole official language of the Eastern part..


The story weaves backwards and forwards in time according to the seemingly random choice of Zafar, they had both studied in the USA together, mathematics before branching out differently, the narrator in at the very start of the sub-prime packaging (yes 2008 was an uncomfortable time for him) and Zafar had been sucked into the void that was Afghanistan. But how and why, where is the story taking us? We learn that Zafar had always been able to defend himself if necessary from violence and he tells uf of the changes he perceived in peoples attitude to him in Ney York after 9/11 as illustrated in the opening quote.

Zafar is a tortured personality, fistly we learn that his family, the people that brought him up were not his parents, back to Bangladesh:


In March of 1971, the Bengal state -at that time officially East Pakistan – declared its independence as Bangladesh. West Pakistan imported troops to put down the rebellion. Until India’s armed intervention in December 1971, Pakistani troops waged war against the Bengalis. Estimates place the death toll at 3 million, the number of women raped at over 200,000 and their resultant pregnancies at 25,000
-Dorothy Q. Thomas and Regan E. Ralph,’Rape in War: Challenging the Tradition of Impunity’.


Slowly throughout the book we learn of his relationship with the aristocratic Hampton-Wyvern family, of the difference of class, Penelope the mother and Emily the daughter, of his time with Emily not quite working out and his eventually spending time in care after  suffering a break-down with occasional visits by Emily but in spite of being informed by Emily, the narrator never visited him. Interspersed with this we learn of his time in Afghanistan working for AfDARI, the Afghan Development, Aid and Reconstruction Institute, pulled in because of his education and background:


My stated business, at least as documented, was to act as adviser to a department of the new Afghani administration. Advisers were numberless in Kabul, like stray dogs in Mumbai;even the advisers had advisers, and none of them were less than ‘special advisers’ or ‘senior-advisers’.


But where is all of this hugely sweeping story taking us? well of course after taking in large pans of world history the point we are circling is much more personal, much closer to home, the story is designed to bring the two men closer:


I’m asking questions and you’re uncomfortable. Relax. I can stop, said Zafar.
Of course he could stop and I could have stopped him…. But I said nothing. It’s a difficult thing to admit, but Zafar’s potential for cruelty has always pulled me in, binding me to him. Here he was, staying at my home, eating my food, availing himself of my hospitality. I wanted to tell him that I was the successful one here. But the ungenerous thought couldn’t withstand the reality: My marriage was a disaster; my home, this retreat, was foreign soil , made bearable only by his arrival..


Closer, which they need to become in order to discuss the heart of the matter and the Hampton-Wyverns.

A story crammed full of information and written in a very precise style, a worthwhile read.

First Published in English as “In the Light of What We Know” in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux