Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Back Reviews Reel: September 2013

My September stops on the literary journey around the Mediterranean Sea that I undertook during the summer of 2013 were Croatia, France, Syria, Italy, and a yacht cruising half of the world. To be truthfully, the French Riviera is only a secondary scene of the classic The Courilof Affair by Irène Némirovsky because it’s where the protagonist lives in exile and writes down his memories of a bomb attack in which he was involved in Tsarist Russia almost twenty years earlier. Also The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna is a novel working up a violent past, although the recent one of the genocidal war in Bosnia and Herzegovina plus adjacent areas in Croatia. The Calligrapher's Secret by Rafik Schami, on the other hand, is a story about forbidden love and the dangerous urge for modernisation in the Syrian capital Damaskus of the 1940s and 1950s from the pen of a Syrian author writing mainly in the language of the country where he has been living since the early 1970s, i.e. in German. The second classic on my review list of September three years past surrounds a Frenchman who breaks up with his fiancée during a holiday in Italy and joins the crew of a yacht in search of the mysterious man from the title of The Sailor from Gibraltar by Marguerite Duras.

- - - - - scene of The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna is the fictitious town of Gost somewhere in the mountains of Croatia. In summer 2007 the Englishwoman Laura and her teenage children Matthew and Grace move into ‘the blue house’ that has been deserted and decaying for years. The first-person-narrator Duro Kolak lives in the cottage next door and since he makes his living doing all kinds of odd jobs he immedately offers his help. However, he has reasons of his own to restore the house to its old splendour. Making the new owners discover the plastered and whitewashed mosaic of a ‘red-bodied bird, golden plumed, dragging a golden tail’ on the façade, he forces people in town to remember and face horrible events of the war that they would rather forget.
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- - - - - The Courilof Affair by Irène Némirovsky is classical fiction based on real events of Russian history surrounding the liquidation of Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, the Minister of Education under the last Russian Tsar Nikolai II. In 1903 twenty-two-year-old León M., the son of Russian revolutionaries deported to Siberia when he still was a boy, is chosen to approach the minister in the guise of a doctor of medicine from Geneva where he grew up, to gain his confidence and to eventually kill him at orders of the revolutionary committee. He goes into service with Courilof for the summer and the better he gets to know the man the more he perceives him as a human being. Thus the instructed assassin is plunged into a deep inner conflict about his mission.
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- - - - - story surrounding The Calligrapher’s Secret is set in Damascus, Syria, and begins in April 1957 when rumour spreads that Noura, the beautiful wife of the famous and rich calligrapher Hamid Farsi, has run away. People say that Noura felt insulted by the ardent love letters from Nasri Abbani which the known womanizer who is almost illiterate had ordered from her ignorant husband to seduce her, but there’s much more behind it. Her fairly modern education and a strong will to take life into her own hands play an important role just like her encounter with her husband’s Christian apprentice and errand-boy Salman. And then there’s Hamid Farsi’s passion for Arabic calligraphy and his attempt to reform the script which leads to his disgrace and subsequent fall.
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- - - - -’s a hot day in August 1947, when the nameless narrator of The Sailor from Gibraltar breaks up with his fiancée Jacqueline during their holidays in Italy. It’s only his first step of liberation from all the things that he feels fed up with in his life… which is virtually everything. When he meets the wealthy and enigmatic American Anna who lives onboard her yacht, the Gibraltar, anchored off the Italian coast, he falls for her and gives up his job at the Colonial Ministry in Paris to join her crew. They both know that theirs can only be a temporary affair because it will inevitably end when they find the sailor from Gibraltar whom she loves and whose traces she has been following already for years, but the mysterious murderer on the run is always one step ahead of them.
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  1. Great list of books. I have wanted to read Aminatta Forna. The Hired Man sounds like a good one to start with.

    1. I liked The Hired Man very much, also because many refugees of the Bosnian war came to Austria in the 1990s and I therefore can relate to the story.


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