Category Archives: Arabic Literature

Am I going to go on dreaming about bread for ever?

For Bread Alone, by Mohamed Choukri and translated by Paul Bowles

Mohamed Choukri is an interesting figure. He came from a desperately poor background and didn’t learn to read until his early 20s. He wrote a famous autobiographical trilogy of which For Bread Alone is the first. It covers those early years up until he decided to become literate and is utterly unflinching in its depiction of the experience of abject poverty.

Normally that’s not the sort of thing I’d read. I detest misery memoirs and bildungsroman is one of my least favourite genres.  I made an exception here partly as I’ve heard this is an influence on Mathias Enard’s Street of Thieves, partly as Stu gave it a good review on his Winston’s Dad blog and partly as I was intrigued to see what had caught Paul Bowles’ attention so strongly that he chose to translate it.

In this piece I’m going to refer to Mohamed when I’m referring to Choukri as character within the book and to Choukri when I’m referring to him as author.

For Bread Alone opens with Mohamed and his family moving from their native Rif region of Morocco to Tangier. Rif has its own language and ethnic identity and Mohamed’s accent will immediately mark him out in Tangier as an outsider. They’re making the journey from desperation – the Rif has had no rain and that means no food:

We were making our way towards Tangier on foot. All along the road there were dead donkeys and cows and horses. The dogs and crows were pulling them apart. The entrails were soaked in blood and pus, and worms crawled out of them. At night when we were tired we set up our tent. Then we listened to the jackals baying.

When someone died along the road, his family buried the body there in the place where he had died.

Mohamed’s uncle has just died so the family is reduced to him, his younger brother Abdelqader who is too sick during the journey even to cry, his mother and his violent father. When they reach Tangier it’s no promised land: food remains so scarce that Mohamed even tries to scavenge a dead chicken from the street despite its being evidently carrion.

Mohamed’s father struggles to find work. Each day he comes home disappointed and savagely beats anyone within reach in revenge for his frustrations. Within the first few pages of the book he grows angry at Abdelqader’s constant crying from illness and hunger and in a fit of rage kills him. It’s a crime for which he will never be punished. It’s little surprise that Mohamed grows up wild.

For Bread Alone is utterly unsparing not just of those around Mohamed but of his failings also. For a while he’s sent to stay with relatives in the country and things seem to be looking up for him, until he sexually assaults a younger boy (he’s not gay in any contemporary sense of that word, there just aren’t any women to hand). The pointless ugliness of this next incident for me shows his father’s influence:

One day I tried in vain to climb a high tree. That leg was tall and smooth. I grew very angry at being repulsed, and so I went to the shed and filled a can with gasoline. I doused the tree trunk and lit a match. The flames were beautiful. I said to the charred tree: Now you’re not so smooth. I can climb you, as high as I want.

As he grows older his acts of pointless aggression tail off somewhat, but he remains a hustler. He sells himself, steals, becomes a vicious brawler and spends the little money he gets on drugs and prostitutes. He’s obsessed with sex, in one dry period carving a tree to look vaguely like a woman and then having sex with that. (He uses lubricant you’ll, perhaps, be glad to know).

So why read this? With this much ugliness, violence and squalor why read any of it? Well, for the absolute honesty but also for the empathy. Choukri doesn’t pretend he had some special claim on suffering or that others weren’t doing equally badly. He doesn’t pretend to have been a victim. He takes the reader into the lives of people lost in drugs, hustling and violence as did say Burroughs and Bukowski but where they just show what is Choukri also explores the why. He shows the lack of better opportunities and why living as these people do may very well be a rational decision given their circumstances.

At times this is reminiscent of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, particularly earlier on in the book before Mohamed becomes an established hustler.

Now I chew on the emptiness in my mouth. I chew and chew. My insides are growling and bubbling. Growling and bubbling. I feel dizzy. Yellow water came up and filled my mouth and nostrils. I breathed deeply, deeply, and my head felt a little clearer. Sweat ran down my face.

At other times it becomes existential. What sets Mohamed apart from those around him is his intelligence and the potential it brings, but for most of this book he’s yet to realise either. Even so, as he reaches his twenties he becomes more than merely reactive and starts to think about who he is and how he fits into the world.

I thought the meaning of life was in living it. I know the flavour of this cigarette because I’m smoking it, and it is the same with everything.

The test for any book which is part of a trilogy is whether or not you’d read the others. On balance, I would read more by Choukri. It’s admittedly a fairly fine balance as while this is well written I’m not generally interested in memoirs nor in exploring others’ poverty, but Choukri’s empathy and intelligence make this worthwhile. Unfortunately, while a Bowles translation is available for this volume there don’t seem to be equivalent translations for the others and I’ve seen what is available criticised for omissions and unnecessary changes. That means that sadly this is probably where my exploration of Choukri stops.

One last word: For Bread Alone comes at the beginning with a handy glossary of words that Bowles chose not to translate, presumably either for lack of a direct equivalent or for the colour they gave the text. One of these read as follows:

zigdoun: a woman’s garment, akin to a Mother Hubbard

Thanks Paul. Unfortunately I then had to google a Mother Hubbard. Funny how references can age.

Other reviews

The only one I know of among the usual suspects is the one that helped spark my interest in this, which is Stu’s here from his Winston’s Dad’s blog.

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Filed under Arabic Literature, Choukri, Mohamed, Memoirs

The monks loved to rile him by asking him about the nature, essence and intrinsic reality of Jesus Christ

Azazeel, by  Youssef Ziedan and translated by Jonathan Wright

The problem I generally have with historical fiction is that too often it captures the physical trappings of history but fails to recreate the psychology of the past. It’s genuinely hard to make a 14th or 18th or 6th Century perspective both accurate and yet accessible to a modern reader.

I’ve no interest in fiction where an essentially modern character is transposed into a historic setting as a form of living anachronism. Good historical fiction should make the concerns of the past vivid and important, even if to us now they seem ludicrous or even offensive.

All of which takes me to Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel where he manages the tricky balancing act of showing the relevance of 5th Century Middle-eastern politics to the present while at the same time grounding the characters’ passions and differences firmly in their historical context.

Azazeel

Azazeel opens with a “Translator’s Introduction” which is in fact a framing device within the fiction. Ostensibly the text is the fifth century memoirs of a Coptic monk named Hypa writing in Aramaic – memoirs he buried because they were too controversial to be published in his lifetime. Some 1,500 years later the modern translator (within the fiction) makes the same decision and leaves instructions that his translation only be published after his own death.

What follows is 31 chapters (each supposedly an individual scroll) in which Hypa the monk talks about his life, explores his struggles with his faith, and tells of how he came to be involved in the defining conflict of his era – the battle between Bishop Cyril of Alexandria and Bishop Nestorius regarding the true nature of Christ’s divinity. To most today that question likely sounds obscure and academic. For fifth Century Christians it was a question worth killing over.

Given the density of some of the material Azazeel’s success rests heavily on how the reader takes to Hypa. Fortunately he’s a very likable narrator. He’s devout, but not unquestioningly so. He’s a little naive at times but friendly and good hearted. He’s a skilled physician, is exceptionally well read and has an inquiring mind. In the course of the novel he has two major love affairs, both of which cause him no small guilt given monks aren’t really supposed to do that sort of thing. He’s human.

He writes prompted by Azazeel – the enemy and tempter of mankind. Hypa likes to blame Azazeel for his own doubts and unmonkly desires, but those are born of his intelligence and humanity and not from any supernatural source. Faced with questions he can’t answer Hypa finds it easier to blame the devil than to look too hard into himself.

Why has everything gone dark? The light of faith which used to shine inside me, the peace of mind which kept me company in my loneliness, like a candle in the night, my serenity within the walls of this gentle room, even the daylight sun, I see them today extinguished and abandoned.

Hypa’s faith has partly been damaged by his scholarship, which has led to him seeing parallels between some Christian teachings and the pre-Christian pagan beliefs of his ancestors, but more by what he’s seen. Hypa witnessed the rise of Bishop Cyril in Alexandria. He was there for the brutal death of the philosopher Hypatia, flayed to death by a mob fuelled with religious hysteria. He’s seen how issues of doctrinal difference can be blown up and exploited for temporal power.

Bishop Cyril here is a character all too familiar to us today. He uses religion as a weapon to increase his own authority and to destroy his chosen enemies. He comes from a religion of love, but preaches only hate. Here Hypa speaks with him and Cyril explains his absolutist philosophy:

Then, in a moment of courage or stupidity, lowering my voice, I asked him in all politeness, ‘And what, your Holiness, are the sciences which are of no benefit, that I might know them and make sure I avoid them?’
‘Good monk, they are the absurdities of the heretics and the delusions of those who devote themselves to astronomy, mathematics and magic. Understand that and stay away from such things, that you may follow in the ways of the Lord and the paths of salvation. If you seek history, then you have the Pentateuch and the Book of Kings. If you seek rhetoric, you have the books of the prophets. If you seek poetry, then you have the psalms. If you seek astronomy, law and ethics, you have the glorious law of the Lord. Arise now, monk, and join the prayers, and perhaps our Lord the living Christ will grace you with a kindly glance.’

Today’s Cyrils are blowing up statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan, banning or burning books, enraging their followers to acts of barbarism in the name of protecting faiths which hardly seem endangered. The Cyrils of this world are always with us. As Nestorius says (arguably a little unsubtly) “‘Killing people in the name of religion does not make it religious. […] Don’t confuse matters, my son, for those are people of power, not people of faith, people of profane cruelty, not of divine love.’”

For Hypa Alexandria is “the capital of salt and cruelty.” When he first arrived there he found himself through mischance in a relationship with a local woman who turns out to be pagan, and who disturbs him with her hatred of Christians (it takes him a while to get up the courage to mention that he’s a monk).

He studies briefly with Hypatia, then joins Cyril’s flock and learns that the Christians hate the pagans just as fiercely as the pagans hate them. Once Cyril’s Christians have destroyed the pagans, however, they easily turn their fury on those who worship the same god as them but in slightly different fashion.

The core question of the age is the nature of Christ; his “hypostasis”. Is Christ a mortal man born of woman through whom we perceive god, or is he god taken physical form? Here are Nestorius’ and Cyril’s respective takes on the issue:

I asked Nestorius, ‘Master, do you believe that Jesus is God, or is He the messenger of God?’
‘The Messiah, Hypa, was born of man, and humans do not give birth to gods. How can we say that the Virgin gave birth to a god and how can we worship a child a few months old, just because the Magi bowed down and worshipped him? The Messiah is a divine miracle, a man through whom God appeared to us. God became incarnate in Him to make of Him a harbinger of salvation and a sign of the new age of mankind, as Bishop Theodore explained to us yesterday…

Whereas:

He wiped his brow with the palm of his hand, and said, ‘Look at Bishop Cyril’s power of expression when he says “God is made one with the flesh hypostatically, for He is the God of all and He is neither His own slave nor His own master. Like us, He came to be under the law, while at the same time Himself speaking the law and being a lawgiver like God. He is one hypostasis, one person, one nature, son and Lord, and since the holy Virgin brought forth corporeally God made one with flesh according to nature, for this reason we call her Mother of God.” Bishop Cyril is very eloquent, Hypa, and he knows what he is saying, and he will never go back on what he has said, and Bishop Nestorius will never retract his belief that God adopted Jesus as a manifestation of Himself, and for the sake of God the unseen we worship the visible Jesus, aware that they are two persons, that is, according to Nestorius, Christ the Assumer, or the Logos of God, and Christ the Assumed Man who is called by the name which he adopted.’

It takes no small skill firstly just to make a modern atheist like myself even understand the issue they’re discussing and secondly to make me care about it. I cared though because they do, because to Nestorius and Hypa and Cyril and others this is a vitally important issue.

After the atrocities in Alexandria Hypa moves to a small and remote monastery where he finds himself much happier. Even there though the world cannot be escaped, and he finds himself in love with the widow Martha who comes to sing in the local church choir. The very first chapter refers to Martha and we know she’s Hypa’s greatest temptation, one that perhaps most of us today would urge him to give in to just as his Azazeel does. I’m not religious, but if I’m wrong and there is a god they would I hope forgive love.

The conceit that everything we read is Hypa’s written record of his life doesn’t always quite work. Occasionally Hypa and Azazeel argue, and I found it slightly incredible that as Hypa wrestled with his externalised conscience he dutifully wrote down their exchanges:

The velvet folds and the train of the dress with the gilt stitching rippled with each graceful step that brought her floating towards me. ‘I see you like description, but that’s enough. Carry on with your account of what happened. Your description of Martha excites me.’ ‘Get thee hence, Azazeel.’

Ironically then the weakest part of this otherwise fascinating and surprisingly engaging novel is the character it’s named after, Azazeel. Every time Hypa argues with Azazeel/himself I remembered I was reading a novel. Fortunately it doesn’t happen that often and it certainly isn’t a fatal flaw. It’s a consequence of Ziedan’s chosen structure at times clashing with some of the points he wishes to make.

I’ve intentionally included some fairly dense quotes here as I wanted to bring out the nature of the debates the characters are having within the fiction, but I don’t want to make this sound like a dry book. It’s dense with life. The tragedy of it is that while the details of why and how we kill each other change over time, the death and the cruelty remain all too familiar. Fortunately, Ziedan also reminds us that while the Cyrils remain with us so too do the Hypas.

Other reviews

The review which first put me on to this novel was Stu’s at Winston’s Dad’s Blog, here. Although this isn’t remotely a fantasy novel and contains absolutely no fantastic elements, there’s a good (but spoiler-rich) review at the Fantasy Book Review site here. If you know of others please let me know. Azazeel won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction so I’m a little surprised it’s not received more attention than I’m aware of.

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Filed under Arabic Literature, Ziedan, Youssef

For any man the end of the world is first and foremost his own end

Balthasar’s Odyssey, published fittingly enough in the year 2000, is a novel by Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf. Maalouf, a former Prix Goncourt winner, writes in French rather than Arabic and in the 2003 Vintage translation I read is excellently translated by Barbara Bray.

This is the first Maalouf novel I’ve read, though I also have some of his non-fiction work on my shelf. I’ll be buying more. Balthasar’s Odyssey was warm, funny, intelligent, charming and at times extremely thought provoking. It’s also a tremendous blend of historical and literary fiction, enjoyable simply as a tale of a Levantine book merchant’s quest for a rare text across Seventeenth-century Europe or as a meditation on mortality, faith, tolerance, the importance of doubt and indeed on what it is to be a writer.

The novel opens in the year 1665. Balthasar Embriaco is a bookseller of Genoese family, but born and bred in Gibelet (also known as Byblos). He 40 years old, a plump widower kept company by his two nephews and his servant. A mild mannered and scholarly man, he is browbeaten by the more religiously observant of his nephews (Boumeh) into entering into a quest for a book titled The Hundredth Name. Boumeh believes (as do many others) that 1666 is the final year of the world, the apocalypse foretold in the bible and other holy texts, but the missing book is said to contain the famous hundredth name of god and knowledge of that name brings with it power that may help one survive the days to come.

Or may not, for Balthasar is something of a mild sceptic, worried that the apocalypse may be coming and that Boumeh may be correct, but suspicious too that Boumeh’s prophecies are too neat, his signs too convenient, that the world will continue as it always has:

I always think that if you look for signs you find them, and I write this down lest, in the maelstrom of madness that is seizing the world, I should one day forget it. Manifest signs, speaking signs, troubling signs – people always manage to “prove” what they want to believe; they’d be just as well off if they tried to prove the opposite.

Balthasar is a somewhat vain man, proud of his family’s long and once distinguished name, of his own business and reputation, of his intellect. To show belief in what he suspects to be mere superstition would be an embarrassment, a humiliation even, but what if he is wrong, what if the world really is about to end? Balthasar’s is is an equivocal soul, he is kind and generous but he is not the strongest willed of men.

Balthasar is also, critically, a writer – he keeps a journal of his travels and that journal forms the novel itself. The text is Balthasar’s journal, his thoughts, his observations, his private hopes, fears and shames. The consequence of that is that Balthasar’s Odyssey as a work is only enjoyable as long as Balthasar himself is enjoyable to spend time with, as long as he is interesting. It is fortunate then that he is one of the most likeable and most human characters I have encountered in fiction for quite some time.

As mentioned above, it’s quite possible to simply read Balthasar’s Odyssey as an often extremely funny account of a middle-aged and rather portly merchant’s misadventures across the Seventeenth-century world. He travels through Constantinople, where he encounters spectacular levels of corruption, to Chios where he encounters smugglers and yet more corruption, to Genoa, Amsterdam and to London itself. Along the way, he makes various friends, many of them themselves at least a touch eccentric, falls in love and engages in a touchingly written romance all the better for its at time faint absurdity (and which of us hasn’t been absurd when in love?). He runs into strange religious orders and dangerous criminals alike, all on a mission to obtain a book he isn’t persuaded actually has any real power at all.

There is then a great deal of gentle comedy in this work, but plenty of reminders too of quite how perilous the world back then was and quite how major an undertaking significant travel was too. Balthasar on his journeys has to contend with inclement weather, illness and plague, grasping and tricksy caravan masters, madmen and war. Death, on several occasions, is a real prospect. There are times he must hide from angry mobs, from possible execution, his journey is a terrifying one in many respects and he is not a courageous man by nature.

As a simple piece of historical fiction, Balthasar’s Odyssey is extremely successful. The characters are concerned with issues of their day, they persuade as men and women of their time and the places and incidents along the way are credible and well realised. If there were nothing else, I would have thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

Balthasar’s Odyssey though is not just a work of historical fiction. It is also a discussion of faith, doubt, fear and of what it is to be human. The concerns of the characters are concerns of their time, but concerns of ours too – intolerance, extremism, the dangers of people too convinced of their own rightness. Balthasar’s Odyssey is about the Seventeenth-century, yes, but humanity’s flaws then were the same as humanity’s flaws today.

Balthasar spends part of his journey with a Jewish friend he meets along the way, Maīmoun. Here Balthasar and Maīmoun are discussing the most beautiful sentence in any religion, Balthasar has proposed “Love they neighbour as thyself”, Maīmoun has reservations:

‘Wait. There’s something else, something more worrying, in my view. Some people are always sure to interpret this precept with more arrogance than magnanimity. They’ll read it as saying: What’s good for you is good for everyone else. If you know the truth, you ought to use every possible means to rescue lost sheep and set them on the right path again. Hence the forced baptisms imposed on my ancestors in Toledo in the past. And I myself have heard the injunction quoted more often by wolves than by lambs. So I’m sorry – I have doubts about it.”

“If you’re looking for the most beautiful saying to be found in any religion, the most beautiful that ever issued from the lips of man, that’s not it. The one I mean was spoken by Jesus too. He didn’t take it from Scripture though, he just listened to his own heart.”
What could it be? I waited. Maīmoun stopped his mount for a moment to underline the solemnity of his quotation.
“Let him that is without sin among you cast the first stone.”

Maīmoun too is a sceptic of the coming apocalypse, a more robust one than Balthasar who secretly doubts his own doubt. Maīmoun’s father, however, has no such doubts and fervently believes that the end days have come, indeed once equally fervently believed that they were due in 1648 and when the day of resurrection then failed to arrive on schedule merely adjusted his expected dates. Maīmoun lost his faith when his father’s apocalypse failed to arrive, his father merely assumed it had started but somewhere far away and so the evidence had yet to arrive. Maīmoun’s father, in other words, has faith. Maīmoun has none, all he has is tolerance, a belief in the importance of not judging others, and a hope that one day the whole world may be like Amsterdam where it is said Jew and Gentile are able to live in peace.

The issue of faith is one of many (too many for one blog entry) strands in this novel. Balthasar’s nephew, Boumeh, believes in numerology and that the secrets of the future are laid out in ways that can be divined through the manipulation of words and numbers. In one marvellous sequence, Boumeh rather patronisingly explains to Balthasar and Maīmoun how numerology proves that 1666 is the last year of the world:

“But why was an event announced in 1648 that’s supposed to take place in 1666? That’s a mystery I can’t understand!” I said.
“Nor can I,” agreed Maīmoun.
“I don’t see any mystery,” said Boumeh, with irritating calm.
Everyone waited with baited breath for him to go on. He took his time, then went on loftily:
“There are eighteen years between 1648 and 1666.”
He stopped.
“So?” asked Habib, through a mouthful of crystallised apricots.
“Don’t you see? Eighteen – six plus six plus six. The last three steps to the Apocalypse.”
There followed a most ominous silence. I suddenly felt that the pestilential vapour was approaching and closing in on us. Maīmoun was the most pensive of those present: it was as if Boumeh had just solved an old enigma for him. Hatem bustled around us, wondering what was the matter: he’d caught only scraps of our conversation.
It was I who broke the silence.
“Wait a moment, Boumeh!” I said. “That’s nonsense. I don’t have to tell you that in the days of Christ and the Evangelists people didn’t write six six six as you would today in Arabic: they wrote it in Roman figures. And your three sixes don’t make sense.”
“So can you tell me how they wrote 666 in the days of the Romans?”
“You know very well. Like this.”
I picked up a stick and wrote “DCLXVI” on the ground.
Maīmoun and Habib bent over and looked at what I’d written. Boumeh just stood where he was, not even glancing our way. He just asked me if I’d never noticed anything particular about the numbers I’d just traced. No, I hadn’t.
“Haven’t you noticed that all the Roman figures are there, in descending order of magnitude, and each occurs only once?”
“Not all of them,” I said quickly. “One’s missing…”
“Go on, go on – you’re getting there. There’s one missing at the beginning. The M – write it! Then we’ll have ‘MDCLXVI’. One thousand six hundred and sixty-six. Now the numbers are complete. And the years are complete. Nothing more will be added.”
Then he reached out and erased the figure completely, muttering some magic formula he’d learned.

A curse on numbers and on those who make use of them!

Balthasar is an intelligent man, but not a worldly one. He is often outwitted, and there are several occasions where he may have been outwitted, but cannot be sure and because he cannot we cannot. He is as reliable a narrator as he can be, but he is human and the limits of his perception become the limits of ours. As a reader, we too have to doubt, to operate in the absence of perfect knowledge, we have to accept that much as we may wish otherwise not all the answers may be forthcoming. There may be things we never know, however much we might wish to.

And that takes me onto another of the novel’s themes, what it means to be mortal, to know that everything we do may be lost on our death. Balthasar is a writer, he records all that he encounters and more importantly his secret thoughts and fears in his journals, but why? What’s the point of doing so? Indeed, what’s the point of doing anything?

Balthasar, and Balthasar’s Odyssey, has no answer to that. Balthasar after all is one of those in his world who do not have faith, and having no faith he has no solutions. Nonetheless, the nature of his quest – the possibility of apocalypse and of perhaps a magic name that will allow fate to be escaped – naturally turn his mind to these issues.

In the following passage, Balthasar is facing the loss of his journals, and asking himself why, if he cannot be sure his words will survive, he writes at all:

I know my words are bound to end up in oblivion. Our whole existence borders on oblivion. But we need at least a semblance, an illusion of permanence if we are to do anything at all. How can I fill these pages, how can I go on searching for the right words to describe events and emotions, if I can’t come back in ten or twenty years to revisit my past? And yet I still am writing, and shall go on doing so. Perhaps the honour of mortals resides in their inconsistencies.

Later, sitting in his room in a wooden building with the Great Fire of London approaching, Balthasar’s thoughts again turn to mortality:

The all-devouring fire draws closer and closer, and I sit here at this wooden table, in this wooden room, committing my last thoughts to a sheaf of pages that will ignite at the smallest spark! It’s madness, madness! But isn’t that just an image of my mortal condition? I dream of eternity when my grave is already dug, piously commending my soul to the One who’s about to snatch it away from me. When I was born I was a few years away from death. Now it may be no more than a few hours. But what’s a year anyway in comparison with eternity? What’s a day? An hour? A second? Such measures only have meaning for a heart that’s still beating.

Writing here becomes a metaphor for mortality, the act of writing, of recording something in the face of nothing, becomes both pointless and yet marvellous. An expression of hope in the absence of anything obvious to hope for. Balthasar is a frightened man, he does not want to die, he does not want his words to be lost, but he cannot help the risk of these things and so continues as if those risks did not exist. What else is there to do?

He writes for another reason too, one that perhaps holds true for any writer, he writes because it is his nature to do so. Because he cannot do otherwise.

What else can I do? My pen wields me as much as I wield it. I have to follow its path just as it follows mine.

All of that makes this sound a despairing novel, it really isn’t though. Balthasar is afraid of dying, but mostly his fears are more quotidian. There is a powerful sequence where the woman he has fallen in love with must go back for a while to her former lover, and his fears then at what may occur and whether she will return to him are in their way much worse than his fear of death or the end of the world (which really, as he reflects in the quote I used for my title, are the same thing). There is something profoundly human in this, he has his dark nights of the soul but he has too his mornings making love in a sunlit room, his meals with friends and late evening conversations, his anguish at the prospect of separation from friends and lovers, his guilt when he lets people down. The triumph of this novel is in the humanity of its protagonist, in his continuing to be human even though he suspects there is no purpose to it or to anything else. At the end, Balthasar’s Odyssey is a curiously hopeful novel – even though it holds out nothing particularly to hope for. We just hope anyway, we may as well.

Balthasar’s Odyssey

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Filed under Arabic Literature, Historical Fiction, Maalouf, Amin