Monday, March 31, 2008

A Partisan’s Daughter by Louis de Bernières

This is a timely book to have read in a week when The Times (28 March 2008) has published the recent figures revealing the high rate of marriage breakdown in the UK. The article begins with these sobering words: “Are you going to a wedding this weekend? Nearly half the happy couples you see walking down the aisle will divorce before they reach their tenth wedding anniversary.”

Louis de Bernières launches his new novel with an equally eye-catching opener: “I am not the sort of man who goes to prostitutes.” But…

A Partisan’s Daughter is a reflection on relationships. Chris, a middle-aged English suburbanite who works as a traveling salesman to pay his mortgage and drives ‘a shit-brown Allegro’ resigns himself to the way that the fire has gone out of his marriage: “But isn’t this what invariably happen? The trouble is that sooner or later, at best, your wife turns into your sister.” He refers to his wife throughout the book as ‘The Great White Loaf’ because “she reminded me of a great loaf of white bread, plumped down on the sofa in its cellophane wrapping.”

Chris follows the typical male tack of blaming the plumping up and plumping down of partners, not only upon his Missus but upon the entire gender she represents: “I don’t think that most women understand the nature of a man’s sexual drive.”

This novel could very usefully be offered as part of a Pre-Marriage Preparation course for it presents vividly the dilemma of almost half the (British) married population who could echo the bewilderment of Chris when he says, “When we married I had no idea that she would turn out to have all the passion and fire of a codfish. How many of us get clamped into that claustrophobic dreary celibacy that stifles ‘the great fire inside them’.”

He continues his lament about relationships when he views religion as being like a highly-secure chastity belt:

“I sometimes wonder whether the reason that puritanical religious types are so keen on marriage is their certain knowledge that it’s the one way to make sure that people get the least possible amount of sex.”

So what’s wrong with going to see someone you think is a ‘bad girl’ when you’re not getting enough from ‘The Great White Loaf’? The woman Chris begins to visit is an ex-prostitute—an exotic Serbian from Belgrade who is now living in England. In contrast to ‘The Great White Loaf’, Roza has pizzazz. She is provocative and shocking. Her stories about life and love Chris finds exciting and irresistible—“It was like being friends with a cobra or a cougar.”

The storytelling and focus on a relationship are such major parts of this book that the action takes place almost entirely in one room.

The book focuses the reader’s attention on the elements that make for a good relationship. What is the ‘kindling’ that ignites a vibrant relationship and what are the ‘logs’ that keep the fire burning? The novel raises questions about whether one can satisfactorily distinguish sexual obsession from love or as de Bernières asks through Chris, “If you had no sexual impulses, let us say, or if you had no hormones, would it be possible to fall in love? Can you fall in love if you’ve been castrated?”

The title hints that the book is about Serbian politics but it is also about lifestyle, living adventurously and it contains some wonderful theological reflections like this description of Chris’ relationship with God:

“God and I have an agreement to leave each other alone. I don’t bother Him and He doesn’t bother me. If we meet in the street we raise our hats and smile and give each other a wide berth.”

So does our relationship with God mirror our human partnership? Can it nurture our human love or is religion just a clamp and a maker of Great White and Brown Loaves?

Most aspects of de Bernières’ literary style in this book work. One creative technique is where a chapter is written through the eyes of Chris to be followed by the next chapter that describes the same event in the words and feelings of Roza. However, there are some parts of the plot (these are best not given away in a review!) that seem forced and farfetched.

Louis de Bernières tells this story with pace, suspense and with a twinkle in his eye. Most importantly, it is a story that is evocative, as it subtly challenges partners to be honest about their expectations and to discover the difference between having a fuck and forging a fulfilling friendship.

This book should be enjoyed by people in a union of love, especially if they want to pass the ten year mark with passion, zest and genuine respect.

Louis de Bernières, A Partisan’s Daughter (London: Harvill Secker, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dhs 98.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of A Partisan’s Daughter.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

What a delight to read a novella and to savour The Uncommon Reader in one sitting and in the time it takes to imbibe two glasses of sherry (as is the custom of Queen Elizabeth II who follows religiously this medical advice from her regal namesake).

Speaking of Her Majesty, she is for once a subject, or the subject of this novella by the prolific and versatile writer, Alan Bennett, perhaps best known for his award-winning The History Boys.

It was the novelist, Upton Sinclair who declared, “On what slender threads of accident depend the most important circumstances.” In this novella, the slender thread of accident happens when one of the Queen’s corgis wanders from Buckingham Palace into a mobile library. The pursuit by Her Majesty leads to a browse, a borrowing of a book and by chapters, a journey into serious reading.

This book opens up the themes of discovering the joy of reading, even late in life and in the midst of a full life. With the Queen previously being a doer than a reader and with a family and an entourage that is negative about her worming into books, Bennett has ample opportunity in this slim volume to express the views of many toward reading and to counter these objections one by one with royal authority.

This novella reveals the dramatic ways that serious and wide reading shapes the Queen of England, leaving readers to marvel and historians to wonder, at the significant influence on the history of the world of one stray corgi.

From the punny title to the last line Bennett writes with wit, suspense and surprise. The Uncommon Reader should be on Her Majesty’s reading list when she next accompanies her Pembroke corgi to the mobile library. She will be amused.

[The length of this reviewella is in keeping with a novella.]

Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 60.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Uncommon Reader.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea

The title of this book is taken from the famous Saudi singer, Abdul Majeed Abdullah’s song, ‘Girls of Riyadh, O girls of Riyadh’. The book is translated from the Arabic after the author, Rajaa Alsanea and her publishers realized that its content may have appeal to readers beyond the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The book takes the form of one email per chapter whereby after Friday prayers in Saudi Arabia the author sends the letter to her subscribers who form a growing and active online community. Over the course of a year the author writes these instalments that tell the story of four young women from Riyadh’s ‘velvet’ (upper class) community. The missives reveal a life of flirting, falling in and out of love and actions that fly in the face of the “prim and prying Saudi society.” (p199)

Initially the email and online community tactic appears to be a skilful idea because it creates the opportunity for the book to include readership response. The author begins each chapter with some readership responses that indicate how explosive the letters have been. Unfortunately this weekly roundup becomes repetitive and tedious as does the body of the book especially when the author engages in blowing her own trumpet.

According to the author the ‘Sex in the City’ style of the book is not intended to represent all girls in Riyadh but it is designed to draw back the veil and “reveal another side of Saudi life to the western world.” (pvii)

The lifestyle described may be explosive for the Saudi readership but it is a tame presentation for readers used to watching western television programmes and movies. The books main contribution largely consists in depicting features of Saudi life which may reflect in various degrees the life of young Islamic adults in other countries of the Middle East. These notable glimpses include:

* The process whereby boy/girl relationships are started and nurtured in a restrictive society, by the use of Bluetooth technology, SMS, telephones, email and online networks.

* The pain that is created in relationships when young men and women are prevented from meeting alone and are unable to nurture a friendship and develop their social skills before they are married.

* The pursuit of Saudi men in finding a woman who will advance their prospects by “giving them some standing, to help them with her family name, her looks, her genealogy, her social position, her wealth” and to have a woman “to blame for their own poor decisions.” (p196)

* Inter-family discussions (usually just by men) about the potential marriage of a daughter without consulting the person who has the biggest stake in the marriage.

* Saudi or Islamic wedding customs from the ‘shoufa’ (lawful viewing of a potential marriage partner) to the official engagement with the signing of the marriage contract signaling the ‘milkah period’ that concludes with the wedding ceremony.

* The role of weddings in providing a sphere for older women to scrutinize the young women who may be possible partners for their sons.

* The energetic but restrained way that young women deport themselves at weddings as they show their wares before prospective mother-in-laws.

* The macho society whereby males view women for their own satisfaction, and often act like “bulls and steeds unpenned”, feeling it as their prerogative to be the master of the bedroom.

* The ease and frequency of divorce by men when women assert their own desires or no longer appear attractive to their husbands.

* The perception of divorced women as “damaged goods”, regardless of the causes of the breakup. (p195)

* The tendency to blame infertility on the woman and use this excuse to trade her in for a new and younger wife.

* The reframing of traditional religious practices for personal convenience and consulting astrological signs, Ouija boards and the reading of tea and coffee cups, in the making of life decisions.

* The fixation with outward appearances (in a society of veils and burqas), including popularity of ‘reconstructive surgery’ which is not to be called ‘cosmetic surgery’, as this is against the laws of Islam. (p161)

* The prevailing view that a man showing signs of homosexuality is regarded as “an utter calamity, an illness, worse than a cancer.” (p132) Those displaying homosexual tendencies are usually ‘treated’ by medical intervention which may include a combination of “surgical operations, hormone treatment and psychological counseling.” (p133)

* The importance of education to enable women to break out from the rigid, social, religious and intellectual strictures.

This book provides some windows on four indulged women in a “uni-cultural, uni-ethnic and uni-religious” society who are seeking to forge their own way by revising their traditions while embracing an eclectic mix of international influences.

While this ‘scandal-sheet series’ is exciting as it breaches traditional practices and exposes corruption and hypocrisy in Saudi society, the relationships of the girls of Riyadh are fragile, fractured and filled with the deep pain of rejection, loss and grief.

Rajaa Alsanea, The Girls of Riyadh (London: Fig Tree, Penguin, 2007). This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 84.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Girls of Riyadh.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Daughter of the East by Benazir Bhutto

Daughter of the East: An Autobiography is an uneven book—370 pages which tell of Benazir Bhutto’s life up to 1988 and then another 60 pages, added to make the 2007 edition and race over the last two decades. As a consequence, many basic details about Benazir’s life are not included in this volume.

This is a dense book, written largely as therapy to while away the time when Bhutto was under house arrest. The daily journal entries, along with snippets from other key players, provide valuable information for students of the Bhutto dynasty and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) but the average reader is likely to find the book a hard read and could easily drown in the detail. Nevertheless, one appreciates the detail of the reflections when Benazir Bhutto describes some significant moments. These include the period leading to the hanging of her father, the moment when she was first inaugurated as Prime Minister of Pakistan and the sudden death of General Zia.

While the book is comprehensive it sometimes has a poetic touch as evidenced by this journal entry in March 1980:

“Time, dripping grain by grain through a bottomless hourglass at Al-Murtaza [prison]. I feel as if I am a living grave, cut off from all human experience.”

“My mother passes many of the endless hours of detention playing Patience. But after five months of being locked up at Al-Mutaza, I am more restless than ever. I have no idea when and if we’ll be released. It all depends on Zia.” (p112)

While entitled ‘Daughter of the East’, this book could just as fittingly been called, ‘Daughter of my Father’. It is a book about Benazir’s adoring father—former Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—and his adoring daughter who was living out the dreams and destiny of her father. The author often acknowledges the influence of her father’s example and stories. She says, “My father’s imprint on me, however, keeps me going. Endurance. Honour. Principle.” (p114) The book also captures the significant contribution of Benazir’s mother who continued to fight with courage and endurance after her husband was assassinated.

‘Daughter of the East’ highlights the values of upholding the dignity of the family and retaining personal honor in the face of injustice. These values proved to be a source of strength, for writing during one of her many periods of detention, Bhutto said:
“‘These days will pass’, my father had told me in prison. ‘What is important is that we pass them with honour.’” (p199)

The book is a record of the ‘judicial murder’ of her father, a defense of his life, work and innocence and a revelation of the lies involved in his trumped up murder case. The author almost admits that the title of the book is a misnomer and not a true autobiography when she admits that it is “the record of the brutal Martial law regime of General Zia ul-Haq.” (p374)

This is a deeply sad book that is mostly written from behind prison bars and one which is a catalogue of death threats, detentions, violence and injustice. It describes the relentless momentum towards her father’s death, the death of Benazir’s brothers and the loss of countless supporters. It is all the more painful when one reads the book following the assassination of the author.

This book is about Pakistan and the fight for a sustained democracy. In the period of time in which Bhutto writes, peace and democracy appear so fleeting and fragile. Yet the securing of democracy is the major motivation for Benazir Bhutto. Writing soon after the unexpected death of General Zia she says:

“You can’t be fuelled by bitterness. It can eat you up but it cannot drive you. The task—and my motivation, remained the same: to return Pakistan to a democracy through fair and impartial elections.” (p380)

This book gives a powerful insight into a person living out their destiny. The author reveals that the pain and loss of the Bhutto family has been seen by many, through the lens of Islam, as ‘the Karbala of our generation’—a reenactment of the tragedy that befell the family of the Prophet Mohammed, after his death in 640 A.D.

Benazir Bhutto’s personal sense of destiny comes to her mind when she takes the oath of office in 1988, at the age of 35, as the first woman Prime Minister elected in the Muslim world:

“I had not asked for this role, I had not asked for this mantle. But the forces of destiny and the forces of history had thrust me forward, and I felt privileged and awed.” (p392)

Benazir Bhutto, Daughter of the East: An Autobiography (London: Simon & Schuster, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 80.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Daughter of the East.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Emirates through the Eyes of an Artist by Trevor Waugh

British artist Trevor Waugh always takes a journal or sketchbook with him when he travels and this book is a collection of the paintings and sketches from his visit to the United Arab Emirates.

In the introduction Waugh says that his journals are “a visual journey, they can be fact or fiction or both. Emotional and objective.” The paintings in this collection have captions that are reproduced in his handwriting, emphasizing the way this book is a ‘visual diary’. These journal jottings are pithy yet poetic, personal, full of feeling and often humorous. One caption reads this way: “To capture the moment, every so often, when the light illumines the scene and renders it timeless. I felt it here!”

Trevor Waugh is enchanted by the light of the United Arab Emirates and admits that “there is something about the landscape and the light here, it speaks to me—ageless and inspirational.” In a skilful way Waugh captures the light in his paintings from the reflections from glassy skyscrapers to the glow of a dishdasha, the Emirates Palace Hotel lit up at night, the sparkling sun on the Dubai spice souk, the pink colors of a camel caravan at sunset and the creamy fusion of sands, fortresses and paving stones.

This British painter believes that photographs don’t do most scenes justice and Waugh’s colors are what make his water colored paintings spectacular. Painting the Emirates gives artists a thorough going workout for in one painting alone Waugh has used Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine, Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna and Alizann Crimson.

If you can’t visit the Emirates and experience its essence first-hand then savoring the pictures and the text of this book is the next best thing. Waugh has painted a range of scenes from most of the seven Emirates. Without it becoming a cheap souvenir book, ‘The Emirates through the Eyes of an Artist’ captures so many of the scenes that one will want to keep and cherish. These include paintings of Emiratis on a beach, bougainvilleas and old pots, Afghani carpet traders at the souk, the bumpy formation of stripy-blanketed camels, the majestic Hajars, women with their distinctive Bedouin burqas, abras (boats) on the Dubai Creek, Muslim men walking to prayers and also in their favorite position—sitting, dhows on the briny and the iconic Burj al Arab but in this scene, set beyond the bathers on the Jumeirah Beach. There is a good balance between scenes of the modern burgeoning Emirati cities and the views of fishing boats, fortresses and watchtowers which recall a bygone age.

The eye of the painter is no more evident than in one scene of a stately mosque with mangroves in the foreground and Waugh’s delightful caption, “Mosques and mangroves. Sometimes all that is required of a painting is a sense of peace.”

Trevor Waugh, The Emirates through the Eyes of an Artist (Dubai: Motivate Publishing, 2006). This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 145.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Emirates through the Eyes of an Artist.