Mohsin Hamid ‘Exit West’


In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, 28078486-3414-447A-8036-EB4B65EC53BAa young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.


Mohsin Hamid in Exit West, shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, leads us by the hand from a city in a middle eastern country, poor, but with hope, where Saeed sells outdoor advertising space in a small company and lives with his parents, whilst Nadia has a job in an insurance company  and has managed the prowess of being able to live alone. Nadia and Saeed get to know each other with initial mistrust illustrated by the following quote as they meet for coffee for the first time:


They were sitting at a table for two by a window, overlooking snarled traffic on the street below. Their phones rested screens-down between them, like the weapons of desperadoes at a parley.


Mohsin Hamid takes us through their brief period of getting to know each other in almost normal circumstances, where Nadia wears a Flowing black robe covering her from the tips of her toes to her jugular notch, not from religious conviction but to protect herself from men, and where Saeed disguises himself in a one of her robes to be able to visit her in her appartement, then in a few lines he describes the tipping point:


The following evening helicopters filled the sky like birds startled by a gunshot, or by the blow of an axe at the base of their tree. They rose, singly and in pairs, and fanned out above the city in the reddening dusk, as the sun slipped below the horizon, and the whirr of their rotors echoed through windows and down alleys, seemingly compressing the air beneath them, as though each were mounted atop an invisible column, an invisible breathable cylinder, these odd, hawkish, mobile sculptures, some thin, with tandem canopies, pilot and gunner at different heights, and some fat, full of personnel, chopping, chopping through the heavens.
Saeed watched them with his parents from their balcony.
Nadia watched them from her rooftop, alone.


He then briefly takes us through the total breakdown of ordinary civilised life at the outbrek of war, then the story until this point torn between reality and something lighter moves towards the fantastic, he manages this by following Saeed and Nadia as they become displaced citizens, migrants but shrinking their trips between countries to passages through doors, as if the true question for both the migrants and the habitants of their destinations is not the trip nor the barriers but the tensions on their arrival and how the world could react:


But Nadia’s new friend was as good as her word, because very early one morning she put both Nadia and Saeed on the back of her scooter and sped them through still quiet streets to a house on a hill with a courtyard. They dashed inside and there was a door. The girl wished them good luck, and she hugged Nadia tight, and Saeed was surprised to see what appeared to be tears in the girl’s eyes, or if not tears then at least a misty shine, and Nadia hugged her too, and this hug lasted a long time, and the girl whispered something to her, whispered, and then she and Saeed turned and stepped through the door and left Mykonos behind.
They emerged in a bedroom with a view of the night sky and furnishings so expensive and well made that Saeed and Nadia thought they were in a hotel, of the sort seen in films and thick, glossy magazines.


So what would happen if people could move about as easily as this, Mohsin Hamid presents us with the competing factions within the different host countries, illustrated by, here, London with the initial reaction from the nativists:


Saeed and Nadia heard it said that nativist extremists were forming their own legions, with a wink and a nod from the authorities, and the social media chatter was of a coming night of shattered glass, but all this would probably take time to organize, and in that time Saeed and Nadia had to make a decision: whether to stay or to go.


But in line with the lighter positive vision of the world and its capability for good, he imagines the world embracing the situation:


In the formerly protected green belt around London a ring of new cities was being built, cities that would be able to accommodate more people again than London itself. This development was called the London Halo, one of innumerable human halos and satellites and constellations springing up in the country and in the world.


For the migrants however, acceptance alone is not an answer to the trauma that they live through nor the people nor the life they leave behind epitomised by the differing capabilities of Nadia and Saeed to accept their situation:


It seemed to Nadia that the further they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.


This is a dreamlike book Treating an age old problem of the pain of migration, not of the journey but of the change.

First published in English as ‘Exit West’ by Hamish Hamilton in 2017

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Diego Marani ‘New Finnish Grammar’


‘At heart, we have always been Lutherans, even before we became Christians. The heroes of the Kalevala were already Lutherans in the same way that Achilles and Ulysses were already Orthodox. 2F042AD6-7A56-4C98-8D52-428CB0A1F403Ulysses practised his wiles on a sophisticated and sceptical society which was familiar with mental trickery. Väinämöinen’s mode of speech is craggy, immediate, uncomplicated, like the first blow of a chisel on rough stone. The Greek Gods mingled with men, wrangled and negotiated with them. The God Ukko never comes down to Earth; he judges our actions and then visits light or darkness upon us, punishment or reward.’


In Diego Marani’s left of field book New Finnish Grammar, read for Italian Lit Month,  the story of roots and the need to belong is brought to us in this improbable story. During the Second World War a man is found in the port of Trieste, badly beaten and having lost his memory and speaking no language, the only clue to his identity is the Finnish name Sampo Karjalainen found on his jacket. He is brought aboard a german hospital ship to be treated where the doctor that treats him, Pétri Friari, has himself unsure roots, in the German forces but himself of Finnish descent. He tries to teach Karjalainen, the rudiments of Finnish before sending him to Helsinki to better discover and understand his own country and language and to then maybe discover more about himself. But Finnish is no ordinary language as we learn:


Finnish was not invented. The sounds of our language were around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was to bring them together and to bend them to our needs. When God created man, he did not bother to send any men up here.


The reader feels something of the poetry, of the essence of Finnish, without Marani trying to detail the actual language. As the Finns prepare to defend their country against Russian attack, Sampo is housed in the military hospital where he meets Ilma, a nurse who feels for him, maybe a new start is possible with her as he struggles to speak Finnish, helped by the pastor Koskela who tries to teach him not only the language but also what it is to be Finnish through Finnish mythology, The Kalevala, the spirit of which is rendered in the opening quote.

Marani’s tale is told by Pétri Friari, pieced together from notes written by Sampo in Finnish whilst Sampo was struggling to learn the language. Who was Sampo? What was he doing in Trieste? Is their hope, through Ilma for a man that does not know who he is? A chance observation by Sampo at the end of the story makes all clear, As Pétri says:


If Doctor Friedrich Reiner had found the handkerchief with the initials S. K. even a day earlier the fate of Massimiliano Brodar would have been different, as would have been my own.


First published in Italian as ‘Nuovo Grammatica Finlandese’ by RCS Libri in 2000
Translated into English by Judith Landry as “New Finnish Grammar” and published by Dedalus in 2011

Kamila Shamsie ‘Home Fire’


“You know what fathers and sons are like”
“Not really, no.”
“They’re our guides into manhood, for starters.”
She’d never really understood this, though she’d heard and seen enough anecdotally and academically to know there was something to it.16831436-5F28-4664-9749-557A446D1F14 For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition. He must have seen her look of incomprehension because he tried again.
“We want to be like them; we want to be better than them. We want to be the only people in the world who are allowed to be better than them.”


Welcome to my second review of a book using Antigone as its thread, the first was Chalandon’s Quatrième Mur and here Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. Both books, as well as Sophocles of course are necessarily set in times of conflict, Chalandon’s in the Lebanese civil war of the early 1980’s where his Creon was Christian, his Antigone was Palestinian, his Haemon was Druze and his play included Chiites, Chaldeans and Armenians. Shamsie’s book is set in the current Syrian conflict, and is a thoroughly modern telling of this classical  tale. what all three have in common is that they are studies of people in times of conflict.

Shamsie, as Sophocles, brings us a tragedy, men blind through power bringing about their own personal downfall. The King Creon in the case of Sophocles who pushes his own niece Antigone and his son Haemon to their deaths and in doing so loses his wife, Eurydice, all this in trying to cement his power. Shamsie brings us Karamat, the British Home Secretary and second generation Pakistani immigrant in the place of Creon. But to this classic story, Shamsie brings us a study of the role of fathers in the coming of age of their sons, see the opening quote by Eamonn, Karamat’s son, and of the mechanism of indoctrination of fragile European youth into The Islamic State through Parvaiz.

The story is told in five parts by five different narrators, beginning with Isma, who has brought up her younger brother and sister, the twins, Parvaiz and Aneeka after their mother’s death, their father, Adil Pasha, had abandoned his home before the twins were born to fight in Bosnia, Chechnya and the Kashmir before dying in transit to Guantanamo. The twins having reached school leaving age, Isma can pick up her life again and heads to the USA for a PhD. Through Isma we are introduced to all of the main protagonists of the story, her brother and sister, a second generation English Muslim politician Karamat Lone:


Mr British Values. Mr Strong on Security. Mr Striding Away from Muslimness.


Isma and her mother had approached Karamat to get information about the death of their father, on the way to Guantanamo they had heard  unofficially, he had refused to help them and was now Home Secretary. And finally Eammon, Karamat’s son who Isma meets in America:


How they laughed in Wembley when the newspaper article accompanying the family picture revealed this detail, an Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name— Ayman became Eamonn so that people would know the father had integrated. (His Irish-American wife was seen as another indicator of his integrationist posing rather than an explication for the son’s name.)


She realises he is not like his father but although confiding in him about her father and her brother Parvaiz who we are learning has disappeared from his life in Wembley, she cannot go past simple friendship. Before returning to England, Eamonn sees a picture of the beautiful Aneeka at Isma’s appartement.

In the second part of the book Eamonn and Aneeka become lovers, Aneeka initially we learn later, to try to help her brother who realises he has made a mistake in going to Syria and wants out, to come home. The thing is that Karamat has managed to pass a law removing citizenship from dual nationals engaged in Syria, and Aneeka hopes to influence Karamat through his son. But life is not a plan and Aneeka falls in love with Eamonn who decides to intercede for her with his father.

In the third part of the story we follow the indoctrination of Parvaiz, a part of this book is the study of boys becoming men and the respective rolls of their fathers, Eamonn and his father caring for him versus Parvaiz who does not know his father, here the recruiters use this need for a father as a hook as in this conversation between Parvaiz and Farooq:


“I never knew my father…..”
“He regretted that.” The stranger said, “that you never knew him. He fought with my father; I heard all the stories of the great  warrior Abu Parvaiz.”
“That wasn’t my father’s name. It was Adil Pasha.”
“It was his—“ The man said something that sounded like numb digger. “That’s French for jihadi name….. When he entered the fight for justice he called himself Father of Parvaiz. That was his way of keeping you close……”


We learn that Parvaiz contacts his sister Aneeka wanting to come home helping us to understand the events of the previous section, Aneeka’s relationship  with Eamonn. From here on in the last two sections narrated by the inflexible Karamat and then Aneeka who has no limit to her wish and actions to repatriate her dead brother, the tragedy of Sophocles’s Antigone plays out up until the breathtaking end.

A splendid book.

First published in English as ‘Home Fire’ by Bloomsbury Circus in 2017

Kiyoko Murata ‘Fille de Joie’


—A woman doesn’t just need to take care of her face, added Miss Shinonome. A hairy inside leg is not only ugly but it interferes in bed. Hair removal with tweezers.A93E07D3-B4E8-4DA0-B0FB-B3A3D7D6A116 If we use a razor, the stubble is uncomfortable for the customers, she explains, frowning, with a stifled cry as each hair is removed by Miss Murasaki wealding the tweezers with expertise, not pausing once.
—Watching them, Ichi is reminded of the adults repairing fishing nets***


Ichi from the southern fishing island of Satsuma is sold into prostitution for ten years by her parents at the age of 15, and if she works hard during this time she should be able to pay off her debt, if not, she will be sold on down the chain to lower and lower levels of pleasure houses. This book, ‘Girl of Joy’ follows Ichi and her friends through this first year as they are taken under the wing of an Oiran, a top level courtisan, in Ichi’s case Miss Shinonome from the opening quote, and as the full understanding of their new life comes upon them. All of Ichi’s hopes are then dashed following the visit of her father, one year later, to the owners of the pleasure house but who does not see her and contracts a further debt she must pay off:


—The end of the year was a difficult time for fishermen and peasants. They got by thanks to their daughters bodies….
—I even calculated how long it would take me to pay back my debt counting 5 yen’s per month…
she would need 8 years without spending any money….
—furthermore, even if I earn more, my father will come back.***


But a wind of change is blowing over Japan, a law had been passed some years earlier to free the girls from their debt, the reasoning was simple, when the girls became courtisans they were no longer human, but animals, as were cattle and horses, and who would ask cattle or horses to pay back a debt. But even this did not help as the owners of these pleasure houses, the police and local magistrates agreed not to apply it and went on as before.

We live the disgust of Ichi at the Salvation Army who were battling to free the girls based on the fact that they had chosen their fallen way of life.

A first in Japan then takes place, a strike in the shipyards of Nagasaki, the girls learn from this and post a list of demands before considering going back to work:


Reduction in the price of tobacco
The right to an evening meal even when they don’t have clients
Fish once every three days
An extra egg on days of many clients
Coal in winter even when we don’t have clients
A reduction in the price of clothes necessary for work
Fifteen days holidays after abortions
The right to say no to clients with syphilis.***


A historically interesting book about these times.

First published in Japanese
Translated into French by Sophie Refle as ‘Fille De Joie’ and published by Actes Sud in 2017
***My translation

Jean Hegland ‘Into the Forest’


—There came a time when I yearned for the life contained in those swaying yellow school busses… it was not long after Eva discovered Ballet when I was so smarting from the hole her dancing had caused in my lifeCBC548E9-3BF3-418A-87D6-C2F0BF82EB0D and I think I tried to persuade my parents to let me go to school as a way of easing my loneliness. ‘We didn’t keep you out of school for all these years just to let you start now’ she said ‘junior high school is one of the most toxic experiences I can imagine’


Eva’s and her sister’s parents have escaped from society, living 30 to 40 miles from the nearest town in the forest, home schooling their two daughters who, having no friends of their own age are very close when they are young with this relationship becoming strained as they develop their different characters, the opening quote showing this separation and the background for the escape in the mother’s

But then all goes wrong in the outside world, maybe due to wars, maybe due to shortages and then to disease, the book doesn’t investigate the why’s. Quickly there is no outside world, and they can only survive if they become self-sufficient. They measure the time from the disruption by their mother’s illness and death, she died in hospital, soon after there were no hospitals.

The girls then live in a false sense of the world and fantasy continuity as their father tries to take care of everything, planting, harvesting and preserving in the clearing around their house to be ready for the winter as the girls continue to prepare for their planned futures back in civilisation in Harvard and Ballet school. And then their father dies, cutting his femoral artery whilst cutting wood The slow realisation that they need to act together to survive comes to them with the final realisation after readingthe tragic  story of a lone woman in the wilderness in the encyclopaedia:


—There will be no rescue! Ever since this began we’ve been waiting to be saved , waiting like stupid princesses for our rightful lives to be restored to us for we’ve only been fooling ourselves only playing out another fairy tale, our story can no more have a happy ending than the lone woman’s did, the lights will never again come on out here, the phone will never ring for us Eva and I will live like this until we die, hoarding and cringing and finally starving.


In this book nature is hostile, a thing to be afraid of, their moth.er had brought them up to be afraid of their surroundings, of the wild animals and for the unknown and maybe poisonous plants. Luckily thanks to books they learn not to tame nature but to live in harmony with it, even killing a wild boar for food when needed, this whole section lacks in reality, especially when read in parallel with Règne Animal, the subject of my next post.

The girls eventually free themselves from their house to live in a tree stump as they pass in the forest from escape to adventure.

The believability of the story aside, on the character side  this is an interesting Bildungsroman for Eva and her sister, the narrator.

First published in English as ‘Into The Forest ‘ by Calyx books in 1996
Translated into French by Josette Chicheportiche as “Dans La Forêt” and published by Gallmeister in 2017

Don Winslow ‘The Power of the Dog’


–And yet the guns will have to come through America and not Mexico, as crazy as the Yankees are about drugs coming across their border the Mexicans are even more fanatic about guns, IMG_1246as much as Washington complains about narcotics coming across from Mexico Los Piños complains about guns coming in from the United States. It’s a constant irritant in the relations between the two countries that the Mexicans seem to feel that fire arms are more dangerous than dope, they don’t understand why it is that in America you will get a longer jail sentence for dealing a little marijuana than you will for selling a lot of guns.


I read Mario Puzo’s Godfather in 1971, two years after its release (waited for the paperback) and have never read anything like it since, well not until now. Don Winslow does for the Barrera’s and their Mexican Cartel what Puzo did for the Sicilian Mafia in New York, and with style. Winslow takes away the decor and shines the harsh cold light on America’s war on drugs. The opening quote explains these two goverments just don’t understand each other.

Winslows book is a sweeping saga over a thirty year period of the Barrera family at the head of the Mexican drug Cartel and the DEA’s war against drugs, against the background of America’s relentless war against communist regimes in South and Central America. His main characters are Art Keller from the DEA a half Mexican American who had learned from a young age to be a YOYO (your on your own) and Adán Barrera, who becomes the leader of the Cartel. The story begins with the Mexicans, with the “tactical” help of America wiping out the Marijuana plantations in Mexico and Art, with the help of Adán’s father, the police head Michael Angel Barrera, capturing the head of the drug trade. Thus leaving the way free for Barrera to create the Cartel.

This is a book spanning many events and many years as Art tries to chase down the Barreras and early on Arts colleague Ernie Hidalgo is captured and tortured to death  for information only Art has. As the book progresses we understand First of all that Adán can turn almost any event to profit:


–Between the DEA and the Mexican Cartel there is a blood feud still from the killing of Ernie Hidalgo, Art Keller sees to that, and thank God for that Adán thinks for while Keller’s revenge obsession might cost me money in the short run in the long run it makes me money and that is what the Americans simply cannot seem to understand that all they do is to drive up the price and make us rich. Without them any bobo with an old truck or a Leakey boat with an outboard motor could run drugs into El Norte and then the price would not be worth the effort but as it is, it takes millions of dollars to move the drugs and the prices are accordingly sky high. The Americans take a product that literally grows on trees and turn it into a valuable commodity without them cocaine and marijuana would be like oranges and instead of making billions smuggling it I’d be making pennies doing stoop labour in some California field picking it and the truly funny irony is that Keller is himself another product because I make millions selling insurance against him.


The second truth we learn is that the war on drugs is high on the political agenda but low on the real covert agenda of the CIA, fighting communism, and as the Head of the CIA program “Red Mist” which was the code name for scores of operations to neutralize left wing movements across Latin America and which needed covert funding, points out to Keller:


–Hobbs stares at him then asks
what do you know about red mist what the hell is red mist Art wonders, Art says look I only know about Cerberus and what I know is enough to sink you
I agree with your analysis now where does that leave us
with our jaws clamped on each other’s throats art says and neither of us can let go
let’s go for a walk
they hike through the camp past the obstacle course the shooting range the clearings in the jungle where cammy clad soldiers sit on the ground and listen to instructors teach ambush tactics
every thing in the training camp Hobbs says was paid for by Michaël Angel Barrera
Jesus
Barrera understands.
understands what
Hobbs leads him up a steep trail to the top of a hill Hobbs points out over the vast jungle stretching below what does that look like to you he asks
Art shrugs, a rain forest
to me Hobbs says it looks like a camels nose you know the old Arab proverb once the camel gets his nose inside the tent the camel will be inside the tent. That’s Nicaragua down there the communist camels nose in the tent of the central American isthmus not an island like Cuba that we can isolate with our navy


I guess you can say that sending GIs to fight communists in the Americas was no longer possible after Vietnam, instead a whole generation was sacrificed knowingly to Crack Cocain in order to provide, via the Cartel, the secret funding to continue the war on communism.

There are dozens of well constructed characters in this impressive thriller of which I have not even scratched the surface, if you have not read it you must, and like the Godfather there is a sequel to avoid you going cold turkey!

First Published in English as “The Power of the Dog” in 2006 by Random House Inc

Herman Wouk ‘The Caine Mutiny’

At the instant that Mrs. Keith saw Willie swallowed up, she remembered that she had neglected an important transaction. She ran to the entrance of Furnald Hall. The chief stopped her as she laid a hand on the doorknob. “Sorry, madam. No admittance.” “That was my son who just went in.” “Sorry, madam.” “I only want to see him for a moment. I must speak to him. He forgot something.”IMG_1107“They’re taking physicals in there, madam. There are men walking around with nothing on.” … “Madam,” said the chief, with a note in his rasping voice that was not unkind, “he’s in the Navy now.” Mrs. Keith suddenly blushed. “I’m sorry.” “Okay, okay. You’ll see him again soon—maybe Saturday.” The mother opened her purse and began to fish in it. “You see, I promised—the fact is, he forgot to take his spending money…. suppose he wants some? I promised him. Please take the money——Pardon me, but I’d be happy to give you something for your trouble.” The chief’s gray eyebrows rose. “That won’t be necessary.” He wagged his head like a dog shaking off flies, and accepted the bills. Up went the eyebrows again. “Madam—this here is a hundred dollars!” He stared at her. Mrs. Keith was struck with an unfamiliar sensation—shame at being better off than most people. “Well,” she said defensively, “it isn’t every day he goes to fight a war.” “I’ll take care of it, madam.” …The chief looked after her, then glanced at the two fifties fluttering in his hand. “One thing,” he muttered, “we’re sure as hell getting a new kind of Navy.” He thrust the bills into a pocket.

In this 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Herman Wouk brings us ‘The’ story of the Pacific war or more precisely a study of the wartime Navy told by way of a Bildungsroman of young Willie Keith on the more or less obsolete mine sweeper, the Caine. The opening quote illustrates the difference between the peace time Navy, illustrated by the Chief and of the new Navy with officers from different walks of life, we can imagine that ‘two fifties’ as pocket money was not the norm for peacetime enlisted  officers.

Who was Willie at the outset? He had a Princeton education which left him wanting to be a night club piano player and he had the prejudices of his class where the following quotes illustrate his views of women and of religion:

—in Willie’s world familiarity with opera was a mark of high breeding—unless you were an Italian. Then it became a mere racial quirk of a lower social group, and lost its cachet. Marie Minotti was someone Willie could cope with. She was pigeonholed after all as a mere night-club singer, if a very pretty one. The feeling that he was tumbling into a real relationship was an illusion. He knew perfectly well that he would never marry an Italian. They were mostly poor, untidy, vulgar, and Catholic. This did not at all imply that the fun was at an end. On the contrary, he could now more safely enjoy being with the girl, since nothing was going to come of it.

—Her agent and coach, Marty Rubin, came several times each week to watch her. After her performance he would spend an hour or more talking to her at a table or in her dressing room. He was a short stout moon-faced man, perhaps thirty-five, with pale hair and very thick rimless eyeglasses. The exaggerated breadth of shoulder and fullness of trouser in his suits showed they were bought on Broadway, but the colors were quiet browns or grays. Willie spoke to him casually. He was quite sure Rubin was a Jew, but thought no less of him for that. Willie liked Jews as a group, for their warmth, humor, and alertness. This was true though his home was in a real-estate development where Jews could not buy.

After military training, Keith is transferred to the Caine as an Ensign from where he is able to witness and take part in the events leading up to the Caine Mutiny. The Caine is taken over by the new Captain, a tyrannical, cowardly career officer who cannot come to terms with the relative leniency on officers and men that actual wartime engagement requires. The officers and men soon notice that when there is action he is always to be found on the opposite side of the ship and he avoids engagement with the enemy so that the crew  nickname him old yellow stain, or as the officer Keefer says:

You can’t say he isn’t on the ball, invasion or no invasion Dewsley does his assignment, you never saw a more fearless wielder of a checklist than old yellow stain.

Willie Keith, still a relatively young officer is on deck during the Typhoon when Queeg freezes putting the ship and the lives of his crew in danger and goes along with the decision of the executive officer Maryk to relieve Queeg of his command, the central event of the book, we know he was right to do it and that he would be wrong in the Navy’s eyes.

Events eventually come full circle when Willie, as executive officer saves the ship after the new captain, Keefer, abandons ship during a Kamikaze attack. He however remains loyal to the Captain:

I now see pretty clearly that the mutiny was mostly Kiefer’s doing though I have to take a lot of the blame and so does Maryk and I see that we were in the wrong, we transferred to Queeg the hatred we should have felt for Hitler and the Japs….our disloyalty made things twice as hard for Queeg and for ourselves.

This book is an epic story of the Pacific war seen through the eyes of small cogs in a big wheel, that elusive creature, an enjoyable war time story. I will now have to dig out the film!

First Published in English as “The Caine Mutiny” in 1951 by Doubleday