The Caliph’s House

“There was a sadness in the stillness of dusk. The cafe was packed with long-faced men in robes sipping black coffee, smoking dark tobacco. A waiter weaved between the tables, tray balanced on upturned fingertips, glass balanced on tray. In that moment, day became night. The sitters drew deep on their cigarettes, coughed, and stared out at the street. Some were worrying, others dreaming, or just sitting in silence. The same ritual is played out each evening across Morocco, the desert kingdom in Africa’s northwest, nudged up against the Atlantic shore. As the last strains of sunlight dissipated, the chatter began again, the hum of calm voices breaking gently over the traffic.”

“The backstreet cafe in Casablanca was for me a place of mystery, a place with a soul, a place with danger. There was a sense that the safety nets had been cut away, that each citizen walked upon the high wire of this, the real world. I longed not merely to travel through it, but to live in such a city.”

Tahir Shah uproots his wife Rachana and two young children from England to Morocco, where his grandfather lived and died. They move into Dar Kalifa or the Caliph’s House and this book chronicles their first year in Casablanca, a story of jinns, exorcisms, house renovation, living next to a bidonville (a shanty town) and a gangster. Sounds entertaining enough.

It does start out well, mostly because I love the setting of Morocco and it was intriguing to read of someone who dared to take that leap and live in this beautiful, very different country. It was especially interesting to read about the refurbishing of the house, learning about how the artisans put together the traditional Moroccan bejmat tiles and the traditional plasterwork tadelakt, which required the purchase of many eggs. Shah was able to bring out all the little nuances of life, interactions and relationships with the people of Morocco.

The Caliph’s House is a pretty humorous read, although a lot of times I can’t help but wonder what goes on in that head of his. He makes a lot of silly mistakes, like wiring the architect the full amount he demands before the work is completed, and ordering a crateful of furniture from India after one drink too many. It can be a bit frustrating reading this book, for me, the height of bizarreness was when some “psuedo friends” arrive to stay, take over their bedroom resulting in Tahir and his family checking themselves into a hotel. I’ve never heard of anything like that before! These people are rather frustrating (and I don’t mean the pseudo friends). It makes for some entertaining reading, but in the end, got a bit too much for me.

But what I found most disconcerting was the seeming non-existence of his wife in this book. She appears only very occasionally, mostly to complain about something or give a little feedback (usually just a sentence). And then disappears again for pages and pages. I was unable to grasp a single idea about who she is, except for the fact that she’s from India. Oh and that on one occasion she cooked a lot of chicken curry. Really? It’s as if she doesn’t live there at all. We know far more about the jinn Qandisha than we do about his family. The experience of his family,  was sorely missing in this book, and for me, resulted in an incomplete story. Pity.

This is  my second read for the Moroccan leg of the Reading the World Challenge, and while  a better read than the first one, it still was lacking something.

Anil’s Ghost

“Anil had read documents and news reports, full of tragedy, and she had now lived abroad long enough to interpret Sri Lanka with a long-distance gaze. But here it was a more complicated world morally. The streets were still streets, the citizens remained citizens. They shopped, changed jobs, laughed. Yet the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared with what was happening here. Heads on stakes. Skeletons dug out of a cocoa pit in Matale. At university Anil had translated lines from Archilochus –  in the hospitality of war we left them their dead to remember us by. But here there was no such gesture to the families of the dead, not even the information of who the enemy was.”

Anil Tissera is a native Sri Lankan who left her country at 18 and is returning after 15 years as a forensic anthropologist investigating political murders.

This is a story of juxtaposition. There is that lush and idyllic Sri Lanka, with its monasteries and temples. It is a beautiful, extravagantly abundant setting over which the spectre of war hovers. Death, blood lurks in the jungles, on the streets, in the hospitals:

“He would lie there conscious of the noises from the surrounding ocean of trees. Farther away  were the wars of terror, the gunman in love with the sound of their shells, where the main purpose of war had become war.”

I can’t help but fall for this place Ondaatje so vividly describes. How in movie theatres in Sri Lanka, “if there was a great scene – usually a musical number or an extravagant fight – the crowd would yell out ‘Replay! Replay!’ or ‘Rewind! Rewind!’ till the theatre manager and projectionist were forced to comply.” Or how Anil begins her day:

“She woke early the next morning in her rented house on Ward Place and walked into the darkness of the garden, following the sound of koha birds busy with their claims and proclamations. She stood there drinking her tea. Then walked to the main road as a light rain began. When a three-wheeler taxi stopped by her she slipped into it. The taxi fled away, squeezing itself into every narrow possibility of the dense traffic. She held on to the straps tightly, the rain at her ankles from its open sides. The bajaj was cooler than an air-conditioned car, and she liked the throaty ducklike sound of the horns.”

I’ve only previously read Ondaatje’s The English Patient and have often hesitated in picking up his other books, I’m not sure why. After reading Anil’s Ghost, I was awed by his lyrical writing and the complexity (but still accessible) of his characters. There were such great little details that made these characters come to life. Anil, for example, bought her name from her brother with cigarettes and rupees at the age of 13. Gamini, a doctor and her colleague Sarath’s brother, was nicknamed ‘Meeya’ or Mouse as a child, and who later in life “felt himself on a boat of demons and himself to be the only clearheaded and sane person there. He was a perfect participant in the war”.

This book doesn’t travel too far in terms of a plot and it does take a little while to sink into, plus the shifting perspective can be a little confusing. However, Ondaatje has written such a beautiful, rich book that it would be such a shame to pass it by.

Anil’s Ghost is my second read for the Sri Lankan leg of the Reading the World Challenge. It was a perfect fit for this challenge, bringing the country of Sri Lanka to life.

Read: Reef

I had a rather difficult time with Reef. It’s a commendable first novel whose narrator Triton gets taken in as a young boy by marine biologist, Mr Salgado, and becomes his houseboy and a very accomplished cook: (For Mr Salgado’s female guest, “I made everything: little coconut cakes – kavum – patties, egg sandwiches, ham sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches, even love-cake… I made enough for a horse.”)

This book just didn’t quite gel with me, although there were so many reasons why I should have liked it. I really do like books that feature food, for example, and this one had quite a bit of that – especially the big Christmas feast that Triton manages to coax up. I do like to armchair travel, and having never been to Sri Lanka before and not having read a book set in Sri Lanka before this one (I think), I did enjoy the descriptions of the beautiful setting.

I noted in an earlier post that this book has been described as ‘spicy’ but I found the characters rather bland. Neither is it really a coming-of-age story – he does get older, but I didn’t really think that his character developed very much. Sometimes no matter the accolades and the award shortlists (in this case, both the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1994), it just doesn’t work. In this case, I struggled to finish it, as I’m struggling to write about it right now. Reef wasn’t the right book for me, but it has had quite a lot of positive reviews, so it might be right for you.

This is my first read for the Sri Lankan leg of the Reading the World Challenge (challenge page).

Read: The Crystal Desert

Sometimes all it takes is the first sentence of a book to make you want to read it. This book’s first sentence, however, was not quite so inspiring:

“I spent three summers in Antarctica, in places beyond the horizon of most of the rest of my species.” Perhaps this might have captured a reader’s interest back in 1992 when it was published, but not so much these days.

My eyes drifted down the page as I wondered if The Crystal Desert – which I found out about from Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita – were worth picking up.

“I was as lonely as an astronaut walking on the moon. But at other times, during the short, erotic summer along the ocean margins of the continent, Antarctica seemed to be a celebration of everything living, of unchecked DNA in all its procreative frenzy, transmuting sunlight and minerals into life itself, hatching, squabbling, swimming, and soaring on the sea wind.”

Sounds promising enough.

And it was, quite.

David Campbell is a biologist who spent three summers in Antarctica in the 1980s, his last visit spent at a Brazilian research station nicknamed ‘Little Copacabana’, where days were spent in a near-freezing biology lab and nights partying.

“We were scientists who had to come to study more enduring things: fossils and glaciers, the ebb and flow of seasons, wind and albatrosses, metropolises of penguins, and the crowded, unseen Antarctic underwater realm, which brims with life as no other sea on Earth. We were pilgrims in the last new land on Earth.”

Campbell has written a good travelogue, with a biological and historical (I learnt a lot about the history of whaling!) slant. He has a keen eye and a good sense of balance – not too much on the science and the details, a nice blend of  observations of the  natural life in Antarctica and personal anecdotes. It is thoughtful and at the same time, entertaining. Perhaps I haven’t read many books written by scientists before (and I’m not talking about secondary school science textbooks) so I was a bit unsure of what I was getting myself into.

But how can you not like a biologist who writes about the ship taking him to Antarctica in this way:

“She is a clamorous vessel. The hydraulic steering mechanism, located behind my cabin, whines and clinks every few seconds.”

This is my second read for the Antarctica leg of the Reading The World Challenge (challenge page). It made a good contrast to my first read, Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita, which was more about the human life in Antarctica.

Book provided by my library

Read: Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail by Malika Oufkir and Michele Fitoussi

I was constantly frustrated as I read Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail. It has such potential, a fascinating, real-life story, a woman who grew up among the Moroccan royalty as the king’s adopted daughter, and whose life falls apart when she – along with her mother and young siblings – are imprisoned for 20 years for her father’s failed coup. Her youngest brother is only 3 when it happens and has never experienced life outside the walls of the desert prison.

But Stolen Lives hardly lives up to its promise as the writing is bland and very detached. I came away from it without really feeling much for these poor people, which sounds harsh I know, since these are real people who had to experience these terrible years, and for something they didn’t do.  I am the kind of reader who tears easily and have read many books with a tissue in hand, and I guess I was expecting to feel something…. anything… for this book. For me, the writing absolutely let the story down. And I don’t feel like I can say anything that will help this book, so I will let it be. Maybe you’ll have better luck with it!

Book provided by my library

Dang, I was doing so well with this challenge. This is the first book I’ve been disappointed in since beginning the Reading The World Challenge. This is my read for the African leg – Morocco.

Read: Death With Interruptions by Jose Saramago

“The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not on, not a single one.”

What a way to open a book.

First, in this land of no death, there is joy and celebration. But immortality isn’t everything that it’s cut out to be. The hiccups emerge. The undertakers are concerned with the lack of business, the hospitals worry about the pile-up of patients. And families begin to wonder about their dying relatives, now not given a chance to expire. One family stumbles upon the idea of bringing their dying relatives over to the neighbouring country, and that catches on, the government frowns upon it (while at the same time, is pleased as it solves a lot of problems) and things get a big complicated and the maphia steps in (“Why the ph, To distinguish us from the original mafia”).

I hate to say this, as I do love what I’ve previously read by Saramago, but the first half of Death With Interruptions was a bit dry. There wasn’t a central character to relate to and for a book that is concerned with the not-dying, it oddly didn’t make me ponder the issue of death and dying.

Now the second half of  the book is far more enjoyable. death (with the small ‘d’) is the central character. She explains in a letter why she went on strike and begins a new practice of warning people – in the form of violet-enveloped letters – a week before their deaths.But one letter keeps coming back. She is intrigued, as it is a new experience for death, and visits with the not-dead cellist, first merely to observe, later to meet him.

Saramago’s version of death is quite different. First, death is female. She does have a scythe, which she talks to. She’s not averse to email: “perhaps I’ll try it some day, but until then, I’ll continue to write with pen, paper and ink, it has the charm of tradition, and tradition counts for a lot when it comes to dying”. death is a great character. She is sympathetic, curious, thoughtful.

The thing with Saramago is that he both frustrates and enthralls. His long sentences meander their way to you, wordy yes but what a sight. It does mean that such concentration is required when reading Saramago, especially his dialogue as the speech of characters is divided only by commas, Confusing, Yes isn’t it, but also quite genius. Saramago’s writing perhaps makes me forgive the relative dryness of his first half, as does the delightful death.

Book provided by my library

This is my European (Portugal) read for the Reading The World Challenge