Naguib Mahfouz: Arabian Days and Nights

February 22, 2021

Aladdin asked, “Who are the associates of devils?”
“A prince without learning, a scholar without virtue… the corruption of the world lies in their corruption.”

Twenty pages into this book and it already felt like I was reading Crime and Punishment instead of another variation of the Arabian Nights. Apparently, it is not a retelling of the Arabian Nights but a grim sequel drained of the amusement and is, instead, a disquieting political message and social commentary. It weighs heavily.

Right at the beginning it exposes the false piety and corruption of those who are in power when a man of good social standing commits a heinous crime and the poor are arrested, questioned, and accused, whilst the authorities “believe in mercy even when we are chopping necks and cropping heads.”

Characters of the Arabian Nights appear throughout the book, their lives intertwined, but the genies are not the type that fulfill wishes. Some play fateful pranks and some act like consciences, testing the human capacity for good and evil, or calling out the faults of those in power, “If you are called upon to do good, you claim you are incapable; and if you are called upon to do evil, you set about it in the name of duty.” And those in power justify their deeds by saying, “He who’s too decent goes hungry in this city.”

As Scheherazade intimates to Sultan Shahryar, “The fact that stories repeat themselves is an indication of their truth, Your Majesty.” True enough. We see these stories repeated outside of fiction and right smack in the middle of our lives. 

This novel is, indeed, a ratification of Naguib Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize.

“Wisdom is a difficult requirement — it is not inherited as a throne is.”

Orhan Pamuk: A Strangeness in My Mind

February 5, 2021

The first page of this book quotes a passage from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude:
“I had melancholy thoughts…
A strangeness in my mind,
A feeling that I was not for that hour,
Nor for that place.”

For someone who has felt like an anachronism all her life, I felt like I owned these lines. It was as if I was meant to read the book just for this, and having come across it right at the start, the rest of the book was an additional literary present.

Ever since I read My Name is Red, I have been looking for the Orhan Pamuk I encountered there in each of his books. (I even looked for the actual Pamuk in Istanbul, persuading the whole family to visit his Museum of Innocence on the European side of the city in the hope of bumping into him.) I never seemed to find that Pamuk again.

But there is something in common with this book and My Name is Red. It is the way he allows different characters to gain control over the narration, thereby lending the reader a fuller grasp.

There are things Pamuk writes that make me uncomfortable, but these simultaneously compel me to admire a straightforwardness about life that only the most courageous writers can execute.

It is only through this book that I have seen for myself what all his works have in common — aside from providing details that escape the average consciousness, perhaps a result of having gone to architecture school — every book is a love story, no matter the plot or the characters: A love story between a writer and a place; between a writer and Istanbul, or Kars; between a writer and Turkey; a love story about the effects of the bittersweet passing of time on a place; about someone who recognizes a nation profoundly inside out, from its complicated politics to its inner conflicts and issues, its customs and traditions, from its spectacular buildings to its impoverished slums, from its most magnificent cities to its humble villages, from its splendid past to what it is now; a love story with a viewpoint only a lasting lover can deliver who, after having seen its glories and deepest flaws and undesirable secrets, remains and continues to love.

Rabih Alameddine: I, The Divine

Rabih Alameddine is insane. His Hakawati is Arabian Nights on drugs, a dizzying magic carpet ride. When I thought a book’s structure could not get crazier, I end up with this: I, The Divine. A novel in first chapters. Yes, each section is Chapter One all throughout the book! With the exception of the Prologue on page 110 and the Introduction at the very end!

But I cannot recommend this author to everyone. He will make readers feel uncomfortable. There are obscenities. Lots of it. But these obscenities are often realities — war, murder, suicide, rape. With the Lebanese Civil War as backdrop, and through the main character and her family, we are shown how a nation’s events shape the lives of its people.

He seems to be the kind of writer who loves giving the reader a good challenge; one has to be sensitive to allusions and metaphors otherwise the point is overlooked. But amidst these dark and heavy themes, he surprises you by making you laugh! I repeat, Rabih Alameddine is insane…

…but who also happens to be a painter who has exhibited in London, New York, and Paris. This explains the colorful passages, and in his two works that I’ve read, references to art and artists adorn his pages. In one of the earlier first chapters, he quotes the artist, John Dwyer McLaughlin, “These Asian paintings I could get into and they made me wonder who I was. By contrast, Western painters tried to tell me who they were.”

This, to me, was a signpost that signaled how this book is, above anything else, about identity, a comparison of Eastern and Western thought, and an additional reflection to my Fertile Crescent literary tapestry on individuality and community. By the end of the book, this is confirmed:

“If I wanted to know about lion, I had to look at the entire pride. I had to look at it not as a single organism per se, but as a new unit much larger than the sum of its parts… I could not begin to fathom what being a lion was if I only looked at each lion individually, or even at the relationships between the lions. All of them together, not all of them individually summed up, but all of them as a dynamic organism, were the species; all were the word lion.

I had tried to write my memoir by telling an imaginary reader to listen to my story. Come learn about me, I said. I have a great story to tell you because I have led an interesting life. Come meet me. But how can I expect readers to know who I am if I do not tell them about my family, my friends, the relationships in my life? Who am I if not where I fit in the world, where I fit in the lives of the people dear to me? I have to explain how the individual participated in the larger organism, to show how I fit into this larger whole. So instead of telling the reader, Come meet me, I have to say something else.
Come meet my family.
Come meet my friends.
Come here, I say.
Come meet my pride.”

Orhan Pamuk

November 2022

My Name is Red was unlike anything I had ever read that it drove a scimitar across my consciousness sixteen years ago. Its literary mischief, its bursts of color, and its contemplations on art and style ushered me into a whole new world of literature.

Since then I have been looking for the Pamuk I encountered there in each of his books. I admit that I even looked for the actual Pamuk and visited his Museum of Innocence, on the European side of that wondrous city straddling two continents, with the hope of bumping into him.

I never seemed to encounter that Pamuk again but I would instead go on to discover other aspects of him, other aspects of the city so inextricably entwined with his soul, and other aspects of myself.

As serendipity would have it, his books have been present in life’s significant moments to vivify specific memories. On the way back home from Turkey in 2016 and while inside a cafe waiting for someone, I attempted to finish reading Istanbul in Manila. I soon found out that the book would not exactly become a favorite — the consolation is that the person I waited for would be.

While I cannot say that every single work by Pamuk wholly appeals to me, he bottles the sounds, the smells, the sights, the tastes, the textures, the realities, and the melancholies of Turkey; and allows me to be, as he would say, “In possession of another world”.

Pamuk has, in some measure, shaped my mindscape, and I would have remained a much poorer reader and traveler had I not stumbled across that mass market paperback copy of My Name is Red one fateful day at the Fully Booked branch at Greenhills Promenade. I have since upgraded my editions to two different trade paperbacks and then to hardcover, re-reading it each time a new edition fell into my hands.

“The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion… open your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colors, details and irony.” — Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red

Nights of Plague

November 2022

Orhan Pamuk’s longest novel to date unravels with a pace that tends to linger, to wit: it is not for readers who are in a hurry. For that reason, I found it strangely refreshing. Strange because it is a plague narrative that is not meant to be refreshing, refreshing because of the reading experience it provided; defiant of the modern reader’s preference for a literary quick fix, and defiant of our silly reading goals that have more to do with the number of books rather than the languid relishing in an author’s descriptive prowess.

Perhaps I simply feel at home in the expression of an author whose mind is a museum of melancholy, but I am now sensing that part of the allure is in how his books are written for their own sake — written because he felt they needed to be written rather than written for their salability. Isn’t that pure art?

Set in 1901, in the fictional island of Mingheria, “on the route between Istanbul and Alexandria,” it is a curious deviation from a usual Pamuk novel that stays within reach of Istanbul. While Snow is set farther in eastern Turkey, an invented island between Crete and Cyprus is still a surprising backdrop for seasoned Pamuk readers; but only until we realize that the creation of Mingheria allows for a certain leverage and freedom for political criticism. Methinks Mingheria speaks more about present-day Turkey than it does about an imaginary island nation in 1901. 

This novel can teach a thing or two about running a nation during a plague; about epidemiology; how to deal with resistance from different sectors against quarantine measures; how plagues do not distinguish between Christian or Muslim; how failed attempts at containing a plague can fan the flames of a revolution; how revolutions can be exploited; the similarities between solving a murder and stopping an epidemic; and living or loving through the sickness and political ferment. It is about plagues, and revolutions, nationalism, the fickleness of governments, about the accidents of history, how history is made, and how history is written.

It echoes Camus’ The Plague in the way that the narrator’s significance is revealed only at the end and also for the chilling reminder that plagues reappear throughout history “for the bane and enlightenment of men”.

Unfortunately, man easily forgets, and unwittingly asks to be reminded ever so often.

Other Colors

“Nothing can penetrate into the cracks, holes, and invisible gaps of life as fast or as thoroughly as words can. It is in these cracks that the essence of things — the things that make us curious about life, about the world — can be first ascertained, and it is good literature that first reveals them.”

The White Castle (a re-reading)

June 2021

Fifteen years ago The White Castle meant nothing more to me than a tale set in the 17th century about an Italian intellectual who sets sail from Venice to Naples only to be captured by Turks and brought to Constantinople where his master would turn out to be his doppelgänger. I knew it was a novel about identity, but it did not leave a lasting impression back then.

I had even forgotten that this was set during a pandemic wherein people lived in fear of the plague! “Janissaries guarded the entrances to the market-places, the avenues, the boat landings, halting passers-by, interrogating them: ‘Who are you? Where are you going? Where are you coming from?’”

The same questions that each doppelgänger would often ask the other and himself — the same questions that confront the reader.

Through my re-reading, I discovered nuances that were lost to my younger mind; and passages that I previously failed to mark with a pencil leapt up from the pages with intensity.

Over the course of time, the two characters’ lives would become inextricably entwined, they would embark on engineering projects, study astronomy, work on other branches of science, write books and and share a life together. As soon as Pamuk tricks us into thinking that one is inferior to the other, and into making us think we have a good grasp of who is truly master or slave, their roles would be reversed until it becomes difficult to tell them apart. And yet, their likeness is something that they do not acknowledge openly.

By and by, the question of who is superior? fades into oblivion and metamorphoses into who is who?

On one occasion, the Sultan asks them, “Have you two never looked at yourselves in the mirror together?”

And there it was, the very point that I missed hiding in plain sight — East and West personified!

And who else more qualified to write about their tumultuous but inevitable relationship? But of course! A man from that city perched on both East and West!

A Strangeness in My Mind

February 2021

The first page of this book quotes a passage from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude:
“I had melancholy thoughts…
A strangeness in my mind,
A feeling that I was not for that hour,
Nor for that place.”

For someone who has felt like an anachronism all her life, I felt like I owned these lines. It was as if I was meant to read the book just for this, and having come across it right at the start, the rest of the book was an additional literary present.

There are things Pamuk writes that make me uncomfortable, but these simultaneously compel me to admire a straightforwardness about life that only the most courageous writers can execute. It is only through this book that I have seen for myself what all his works have in common — aside from providing details that escape the average consciousness, perhaps a result of having gone to architecture school — every book is a love story, no matter the plot or the characters: A love story between a writer and a place; between a writer and Istanbul, or Kars; between a writer and Turkey; a love story about the effects of the bittersweet passing of time on a place; about someone who recognizes a nation profoundly inside out, from its complicated politics to its inner conflicts and issues, its customs and traditions, from its spectacular buildings to its impoverished slums, from its most magnificent cities to its humble villages, from its splendid past to what it is now; a love story with a viewpoint only a lasting lover can deliver who, after having seen its glories and deepest flaws and undesirable secrets, remains and continues to love.