Mathias Énard: Zone

Tell them of battles, kings, and elephants,

without the elegance, without the elephants,

only battles, cruel kings, and pawns,

“Comrade, one last handshake before the end

of the world,” says a madman

at the station in Milan,

Francis Servain Mirković is burdened

by the remark, burdened

by the contents

of his suitcase, by the contents

of his mind,

as the train steers to Rome,

it is not scenery that flash by,

it is his life; no home,

Balkan conscript, a spy,

dysfunctional lover, son,

former informer

in the Zone, epicenter

of my literary quakes,

“the Zone, land of the wrathful savage

gods who have been clashing

endlessly

since the Bronze Age,” but he is

convinced that tomorrow he will

be a new man, as the train moves

memory

is a threnody

of the guilt of nations,

of the sins of the world,

of over a century’s worth

of savagery,

a brutal montage

of conflict, training our eyes to truths 

that we prefer to turn away from, a book

to make our consciences flinch, no one

is ever prepared

for official truth

says our antihero, this man,

a product of a history

of violence,

a tragic aspect

of a portrait

of a man

of our time.

Orhan Pamuk: Nights of Plague

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 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, revolutions, nationalism, the administrative and language reforms that ensue, 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.

Halldór Laxness: Wayward Heroes

“With these words, she drew back the bolts that Kolbakur had made to fasten her window frame, pulled the frame aside, and let the man into her bower. Images of gods were carved on the bower’s pillars and stiles and rails of her chair, but they were only half done — Christianity having come to Iceland before the artist completed his work.”

And with this fleeting imagery, a beautiful and ingenious depiction of the religious landscape in which the story is set. An age on the cusp between the fading world of paganism and the force of a new religion of peace, ironically preached by adventurers and men waging selfish crusades in the name of Christ. It was this melancholy conflict that I heard playing as a soundtrack throughout its pages.


It seemed revolutionary when Hollywood recently began to highlight the dark side of legends and heroes. These have become sombre reminders that even superhuman abilities are not enough to protect one from ego, the perilous thirst for fame, power, revenge, and from mere mortals’ tragedies.

Then there’s Halldór Laxness who had Wayward Heroes published way back in 1952, part of the body of work that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1955.

Written in the style of ancient Icelandic sagas, it is replete with violence, adventures amorous and otherwise, and the barbarism of medieval Europe. But how wonderfully Laxness refashions the old to become accessible and relevant to the new.

On the surface, these are the exploits of blood-brothers, Þorgeir and Þormóður. One can read it as such and it will remain entertaining. But one can always choose to go beyond that and take note of the language, the veiled ironies, how wit and sarcasm remain elegant, and the subtleties that only a master can pull off, and how this story remains especially timeless for being a cautionary tale about the heroes, kings, and causes to whom and to which we pledge fealty.

But do we ever listen?

Farnoosh Moshiri: At the Wall of the Almighty

“What did I do with my hands as a free man?” he asks himself.


A bearded guard leads him from his solitary confinement to another cell. He is on a leash, and he knows that he is in the central prison of the Holy Republic. This is all he knows. Severe torture has made him forget everything else, including his name.

With such a dismal opening, one can excuse why I shelved this, the heaviest volume on my Iran book stack, for over a year despite my deep fascination for the region and its extremely underrated writers.

My personal reading prompt for September was to go through an NYRB editions reading spree. But is there a more pressing reading prompt than the ongoing protests in Iran? I realize that we — as readers, and through our reading choices — have the power to call attention to things happening across the world and to rally with those who need a voice.

I instantly felt it was time to meet this unnamed character who is forced to admit guilt to an unknown sin that, along with his name, he cannot recall. Through daily episodes of psychological and physical torture, he slips in and out of consciousness, reality and dreams. Fragments of his childhood and of his life tease his sanity, the key players of society whose ideologies and actions lead to the revolution take shape in his mind, and the story unfolds. He begins to remember Sahar, a twin sister whom he loved deeply; and by and by his desire to die begins to be replaced by the desire to know what happened to her.

‘Sahar is dawn,’ I say, ‘the end of darkness, when the sun comes out. Daylight trapped in night.’

Categorized as a work of magic realism, I find that the magic realism is, at first, subdued, but one which crescendoes into an anarchy. Readers who are not enthusiasts of the genre should not be dissuaded, however, because we eventually recognize that it is merely our tortured character’s memories and hallucinations merging with reality, metaphors, and childhood fantasies.

This is Farnoosh Moshiri’s first novel, but its depth and calibre surpass many works by more established writers. I have not read a more harrowing ending, but I also have not read a more excellent Iranian novel.

Here is an apt literary device condemning oppressive governments that incapacitate people to distinguish nightmare from reality, and condemning regimes that engender systemic mind-conditioning that edge a nation into losing its identity — those tyrannies that ultimately coerce you into forgetting who you are.


What are we doing with our hands as free men and women; what are we doing with freedom? I ask myself.

First of all, we defend it.

Nawal El Saadawi: The Fall of the Imam

“No one of you has ever possessed my mind. No one. And no matter how often you took my body my mind was always far away out of your reach, like the eye of the sun during the day, like the eye of the sky at night.”

In a culture where a buffalo has more worth than a woman, where love and marriage are usually two different things, where there is a disconnect between religious devotion and actions, where a man has the freedom to sin but where a woman can get stoned for being a victim, Nawal treads dangerously with her words.

She throws difficult questions at religion and those who are in power, beats us out of complacency and privilege, and prods us to be angry at injustice and inequality.

This is not the book I would recommend to someone who is new to her writings, but a seasoned Nawal reader would probably consider this an epitome of her literary prowess.

Prose-wise, it is the most ornate. Content-wise, it is the most potent. Form-wise, it is her most sophisticated. And wading through all of that is not so easy.

Different narrators for each chapter can get disorienting; the victims narrate, the criminals narrate, so do the dead, and oftentimes about the same incident. When it comes to the women, one can get confused trying to identify whether it is the mother speaking, or the daughter, or the new wife, or the first wife, or the mistress, or the sister. But I realize the intention: It is to emphasize the fact that they are women, and because they are women they suffer all the same.

“Like in The Thousand and One Nights, the beginning of each tale merged with the end of the one which had preceded it, like the night merges with the day…” And then she draws us away from Scheherazade to a lesser-viewed aspect of this literary heritage and culture, and points the spotlight at the hypocrisy of King Shahryar.

Through it all, the question that seems to reverberate loudest in my mind is this: What can we do if the leaders, those who are in power, the ones assigned to mete out judgment, are the perpetrators of the crime?

Because at times, they are. Not only in some culture foreign to us. But in ours, too.

Rebecca Solnit: Hope in the Dark

If it were not Rebecca Solnit who wrote this, I would have dismissed the title as another one of those inspirational books that I do not gravitate towards so much. But having experienced four Solnits this year prior to this, which all proved to be books I needed at the exact time I read them, I seized this as soon as it arrived. And once again, she delivered.

I felt it was written for me, who, upon returning from an exhilarating trip, returned to my country with a new president whom I did not vote for. Solnit’s books are extremely political, but she wrote this to make the case for hope, especially for those who, on the surface, seemingly lost:

To point out that just because my side did not win the election, does not mean we are not victorious in many things. To challenge myself to live the same way with the leadership I did not choose as I would have had my candidate won, and to continue being a responsible citizen and human being — because being victorious and seemingly right is small comfort when, around the world, and around the country, there is still injustice and there are still people dying and living horribly.

“Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought, including movements, heroes, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.”

“The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative.”

Consider reading this if you, like me, paid your taxes dutifully and was called “self-righteous” when you pointed out that our new president failed to pay his; if you campaigned for your candidate without insulting anyone but the many enjoyed branding everyone on your side as toxic, even though poisonous ones were actually present on both sides if we care to admit (I have screenshots); if you were maligned and called names because of who you supported while the same people demanded respect but has been disrespecting your candidate for six years; if you, hopefully, like some of them, just wished for a better country. Consider reading this if you are frustrated and you think hope is lost, because it just made me realize that it isn’t.

This book reminded me that hope and action feed each other, and that every action and inaction have more impact than we know; to not merely demand change but to embody it. 

Hope, above all, is action; and as long as we do our part and, if possible, do more than what’s required of us, there is hope. 

Rafik Schami: Damascus Nights

“Writing is not the voice’s shadow but the track of its steps… only writing has the power to move a voice through time, and make it as immortal as the gods.”

In an attempt to read something that would get my mind off Philippine politics, I sought asylum at my Silk Route | Fertile Crescent shelf. This is one of the books from a hefty stack that a bookseller set aside for me because he knows of my current preferred literary flavors and reading project. And sure enough, I could hardly put this one down as soon as I started!

It is about a storyteller who loses his voice and the stories that allowed him to retrieve it.

As much as it is a wonderful reflection on writing and storytelling, Damascus Nights is, as you may have already guessed, a play on the Arabian Nights. But Rafik Schami makes the Arabian Nights what I would have preferred it to be! The fantastical quality of the original is still there, but he allows you to feel, smell, and hear the Syria before the humanitarian disaster, the lively early to mid-20th century Damascus, while weaving a social commentary on Damascene life, exploring identity and exile, foreign affairs, corruption, and a none too subtle criticism of its rulers! This turned out to be excessively political — without losing its humor and lightness!

Nevertheless, page 108 made me stop in my reading tracks. It is where an old man is insulted by an official, but his son who owns a teahouse begs him to refrain from retaliating: “‘That would ruin me,’ he said, ‘they’d shut down the place within hours.’ Someone would plant a handful of hashish somewhere, you see, or else a book by Lenin. The police would show up an hour later, and they’d find the hashish and the Lenin exactly where the man from the secret police had stashed them. The place would be closed and its proprietor thrown in prison for ten or twenty years.” Red-tagging and this so-called drug war abused to punish political or personal critics are some of the oldest tricks in the book, my friends. I will not write anything else on the matter. Even in reading, you cannot escape from something you care about.

Rafik Schami is another proof of the claim that we are missing so much as readers if we cease from exploring the literary wonders of this region. And isn’t his About the Author section the most charming you’ve ever encountered?

“…is an award-winning author who used to be a baker but didn’t like the flour and early hours. Since giving up baking, he has tried his hand at chemistry to discover the formula for immortality. What he found was that he could only do that through writing, because only literature lives forever.”

Excuse me as I go hunt for more books by Rafik Schami…

Milan Kundera: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

“‘You begin to liquidate a people,’ Hübl said, ‘by taking away its memory. You destroy its books, its culture, its history. And then others write other books for it, give another culture to it, invent another history for it. Then the people slowly begins to forget what it is and what it was.’”

It was this quote from the book making the rounds on social media recently that led me to re-read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but then I found more to retrieve from the margins of memory.

“…but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it… we fight for access to the labs where we can retouch photos and rewrite biographies and history.”

“They wanted to efface hundreds of thousands of lives from memory and leave nothing but an unstained age of unstained idyll.”

“…erased from the country’s memory, like mistakes in a schoolchild’s homework.”

“The constitution did indeed guarantee freedom of speech, but the laws punished anything that could be considered an attack on state security. One never knew when the state would start screaming that this word or that was an attempt on its security.”

Fortunately and unfortunately, Kundera reminds us that we are not alone in this plight, and there are still those who remember.

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

It’s funny how this book made more sense when I read it as a younger person — the passages about music and literature I glorified, the obscenities I took as metaphors and almost everything else as literary symbols. Now that I’m older, it all seems absurd.

And it is absurd because of how real it has become.

Along with my old yellowed notes tucked between its pages lie the pretentiousness of a young reader and the confounding of an older one.

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Mourid Barghouti: I Saw Ramallah

“Here I am walking toward the land of the poem…”

When a poet writes a memoir, the entire book is a poignant song. Exiled from his homeland after the Six Day War, Mourid Barghouti returns after thirty years and sings of his experience and his memories.

“And now I pass from my exile to their… homeland? My homeland? The West Bank and Gaza? The Occupied Territories? The Areas? Judea and Samaria? The Autonomous Government? Israel? Palestine? Is there any other country in the world that so perplexes you with its names?”

And yet, as Edward W. Said intimates in the foreword, the account is free of bitterness and recrimination.

“I know that it is the easiest thing to stare at the faults of others and that if you look for faults you see little else. Which is why—after each setback that befalls us—I look for our faults too; the faults of our song. I ask if my attachment to the homeland can reach a sophistication that is reflected in my song for it. Does a poet live in space or time? Our homeland is the shape of the time we spent in it.”

The pages teem with beautiful questions…

“Who has stolen our gentleness?”

“Are they really afraid of us or is it we who are afraid?”

“What should we remember and what should we forget?”

“Did I paint for strangers an ideal Palestine because I had lost it?”

…and express in simple ways the everyday sorrows of displacement.

“I have never been able to collect my own library. I have moved between houses and furnished apartments, and become used to the passing and the temporary. I have tamed myself to the feeling that the coffeepot is not mine.”

But in the vast desert of pain, there is room for love and joy…

“Love is the confusion of roles between the giver and the taker.”

“Joy needs training and experience. You have to take the first step.”

…and even vaster spaces for art. 

“I said to myself that the heart of the matter was in a detailed knowledge of life, and of the human maturity that is the foundation for all artistic maturity. These are features that no work of art worthy of the name can do without, whatever the lived experience. What is important is the piercing insight and the special sensitivity with which we receive experience, not simply our presence at the event, which, important as it is, is not enough to create art.”

I Saw Ramallah — read, once again, to humanize what we tend to generalize.