We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

You will subjugate the unknown beings on other planets who may still be living in the primitive condition of freedom, to the beneficent yoke of reason. If they fail to understand that we bring them mathematically infallible happiness, it will be our duty to compel them to be happy.

As schoolchildren we all read (perhaps you have, too) that greatest literary monument to have been handed down to use from ancient days–“The Railway Guide.”

In the distant future, after the two hundred years’ war threatened to end the human race, there is a more civilized age that promises to bring people happiness under the aegis of the One State. Mankind lives in a state of logical, mechanical perfection, separated from nature by Green Walls. They are to consider themselves appendages of the collective body and are thus assigned numbers, roles, and schedules. People request sexual partners, receiving coupons to be redeemed within allotted times; only during these times are people allowed to lower the shades on their transparent apartments.

Life in the One State is dictated by their holy book handed down from ancient times: The Railway Guide.” The twin pillars of religion are Taylorism and the state. The Table of Hours, found in the Guide, structures the day, with only the briefest period wherein people are left to their own devices. All other time is devoted to the One State; to do otherwise is treasonous.

D-503, the author and protagonist of We, is the lead engineer on the Integral, a ship designed to spread the civilization of the One State to other planets. The project is nearing completion, so D-503 is pleased with his contribution to society and happily registered in his relationship with O-90. Then he meets I-330, who interjects herself into his life and challenges his entire world view. More than preying on D-503’s glimmer of biological urges, I-330 is part of a secret sect of “Mephi,” people who fundamentally reject the tenets of the One State and are working to undermine its existence, and who see the Integral as an opportunity to do just that. As a result of this encounter, D-503 becomes infected, he thinks, with the disease of imagination—an epidemic that threatens the very being of the One State.

Written in 1920/21 in the Soviet Union and (perhaps unsurprisingly) denied publication, We is a novel that pushes collectivism to its absurd extreme. Art still exists, but only in rational terms such as mathematical couplets. Imagination is a disease, nature a threat. Happiness comes from the absence of freedom and choice. Crime is unheard of and desires are met. The central narrative arc in We is one number’s (D-503) gradual awakening as an individual and the pain he suffers when this process causes him to be rejected from his community as though a cancerous cell. It is story of fall and salvation, with an overt parallelism to the Biblical story about the fall of man, this time from a mechanical Eden.

I have been meaning to reread We for a while because I had it high on my list of favorite novels, but found myself unable to remember much about the story outside a few turns of phrase. I worried that, perhaps, I had it listed too high. In short, I did not. We is a masterpiece, unrelenting in its vision of totalitarian society. Zamyatin is not blind to the virtues of collectivism or the importance of one’s community, but simultaneously exposes the importance of nature, of individualism, and even of heresy.

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It might be a little while before I write another of these book reviews because, on a whim, I decided to start reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I am both super excited to finally start in on this novel by one of my favorite authors and nervous that a) I’m not in the right headspace to read it; b) that it’ll suffer from being overhype; and c) that I won’t get it. There is only one way to find out.

In the meantime, I am going to be writing about a few other topics, coming up, including hopefully more little vignettes from ancient sources and some reflections on the PhD process after my defense.

The End of Days – Jenny Erpenbeck

The customs of man are like footholds carved into inhumanity, she thinks, something a person who’s been shipwrecked can clutch at to pull himself up, and nothing more. How much better it would be, she thinks, if the world were ruled by chance and not a God.

Shame, then, is the price one pays for this life of freedom, or is this itself the freedom: that shame no longer matters. Then America really must be Paradise.

Even before this, she’d thought at times that deprivation made people more alike, made their movements, down to the gestures of their hands and fingers even more predictable.

A unnamed female child dies in 1900, in a small village in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This child was born to a Jewish woman and an Catholic civil servant thrust together by events that included the murder of the girl’s grandfather by Poles. Her death tears apart the unlikely couple, but could it have gone differently?

The End of Days is a beautiful, powerful novel divided into five books, each of which is centered on the death of the same mostly unnamed woman. Some, like the first, open with her death and explore how this causes things to unravel, while others, like the second, build toward her death. Her lives and deaths offer a portrait of the twentieth century in these five vignettes: rural Galicia, Vienna after World War One, Moscow during the purges in the 1930s, East Berlin in the 1960s, and finally Berlin in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The five deaths are bound together by intermezzos that each ask how things could have gone differently, unraveling the events that led to her death and weaving out a new continuation that leads, inevitably, to a different future and a new death.

There is an exploration of the Butterfly Effect, but only in limited ways. Each of the deaths is treated as a confluence of unfortunate events, some with intent and some by accident, but instead of looking at how grand events might have changed, The End of Days focuses treats this one, unnamed woman’s life as the collision point of all the ripples. Thus, the question is: how might this one woman have lived on and how might she have died next.

Each of the other pasts lives on as a dim, mostly forgotten memory of a possible past had things gone differently, and this interplay between remembering and forgetting forms one of the dominant themes in The End of Days. From the outset, unnamed protagonist’s mother does not know her father. He was murdered by Poles and the couple’s treasured collected works of Goethe damaged, but her mother never tells this story either to her daughter or to her granddaughter, while their Jewish heritage is supplanted by marxism, modernism, and German culture. Of course, devotion to Goethe is insufficient to save one from concentration camps. The cycle repeats when the protagonist crafts an autobiography meant to save her from a Siberian labor camp and when she constructs a new past for her son’s absent father. History weighs down every character The End of Days. Yet they find themselves untethered from their family’s past and therefore lacking a sound foundation to appreciate that history.

It would not be entirely untoward to call The End of Days morbid since there a heavy pall of death lingers over the whole novel, but there is a clear affection for this unnamed woman that makes her repeated deaths poignant. In each book, she aspires to live in the shadow of massive events, but her struggles are mundane: to breathe, to find herself as a teen, newly in love and fighting with her mother, to find her husband, to raise a child as a single mother, to reconcile herself to a world changed once more.

These few words do not do justice to how much I loved The End of Days. There is a raw brutality to the story that is bound by tenderness. Time and again I found myself rereading sentences and paragraphs, just lingering on the questions posed or statements offered, including the examples that open the post. This is not to say that The End of Days is limited to one-line quips about modernity. The story builds to each of these observations as a climax before receding slightly and building up again, in a microcosm of how the book as a whole builds to a climax and then unwinds so that it can build up again. The result is an overlapping portrait of a century in Eastern Europe. This is a book I cannot recommend highly enough.

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Next up, I am rereading Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We.

Chaos and Night – Henry de Montherlant

The Spanish Civil War is long-since concluded, the Republican forces defeated. For the past twenty years an old anarchist, Don Celestino, has lived in France with his daughter, daring not return lest he be executed. So he remains in Paris, haunted by memories of the war, writing political tracts, and feeling betrayed by his ex-patriot friends. Then his sister dies in Madrid. Don Celestino feels obliged to return to the world of his aristocratic lineage and so arranges to take his daughter back to their native country for the first time with two objectives: to sort out the inheritance and to get to go to the bullfights one last time.

Chaos and Night is a modern reinterpretation on the story of Don Quixote. In place of an illness, though, Don Celestino is overcome by a peculiar mixture of paranoia and nostalgia. His paranoia is obvious: his actions during the war leave him at risk should he ever return to Spain. His nostalgia requires more explanation. Don Celestino has been fighting the same fight in his head for the past two decades but, for all practical purposes, there is no revolution anymore. His windmills are the ideological opponents that exist only in his head. Consequently, when Don Celestino returns to Spain, he is horrified by the country’s modernization, most notably in the dilution of the bullfighting tradition. While Don Celestino lives in his memories every day, the citizens of Spain seem determined to forget. His daughter, on the other hand, relishes the opportunity to escape Don Celestino’s mental prison.

There were aspects to Chaos and Night that I liked and there were individual scenes such as one in which Don Celestino plays matador for Parisian cars, that stood out. And yet, I found myself underwhelmed by the novel either as a critique of modernization or as a psychological inquiry into paranoiacal nostalgia. It was most successful as a play on Don Quixote, but this alone only takes the story so far. I have a hard time articulating why I was not unmoved because I like each of the book’s major themes and de Montherlant was, in my opinion, successful in characterizing Don Celestino. The closest thing about the book that I can point to is that the extreme focus on Don Celestino happens at the expense of rounding out or even really engaging with any of the other characters, which, in turn, caused the overall story to fall flat. Chaos and Night had its moments, but did not rise to the level of a lot of the books I have recently read, including The End of Days, the book I read immediately after this one.

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With this post I am all caught up on my backlog of posts. I just finished reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, a remarkable book that I am going to write about in the next couple days. Next up, I am planning to reread Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We before indulging the siren’s call coming from my stack of unread books.

Laziness in the Fertile Valley – Albert Cossery

Laziness in the Fertile Valley is the third novel by Albert Cossery and the fifth that I have read. Although living in France, all of Cossery’s novels are biting social satires set in twentieth-century Egypt, which gave him the nickname “Voltaire of the Nile.”

Laziness in the Fertile Valley is a traditional family drama. In a rural house in Egypt live five men: a widower patriarch, his once-wealthy brother, and his three grown sons all determined to, in their own ways, secure their inheritance. When the patriarch decides to remarry, it threatens the careful balance in his home. Then Cossery’s wickedly ironic sense of satire takes over. The patriarch has not left his room in ages, the house seems to emit powerful waves of lethargy, and the inheritance the brothers are seeking to preserve is the freedom to sleep. Galal, the eldest, has been sleeping for seven years, wrapping himself in darkness and silence and rising only to eat and relieve himself. Rafik, the middle son, is an ardent firebrand, but only when it comes to protecting the silence of the home, while the youngest, Serag, is fascinated by the promise of modernity represented by a never-completed factory and by the industry of a young homeless man, even though he can barely stay awake long enough to walk to the hulking ruins.

Work is an anathema to Cossery and the themes in this novel are reputedly stolen from his own experiences. This family uses work as a refuge: from school, from work, from society. Only the work of their housekeeper and cook, a female relative, is tolerated. They are also wealthy enough to do so, minimizing their costs through inactivity. Even as Serag is determined to get a job (he dreams of working in the factory, ignorant that it was never operational), he is cautioned away from it by the rest of the family, who tell him of its oppressive horrors, and the siren’s song of sleep catches back up.

Since Serag’s struggle to join the noise and bustle of the outside world is forever stunted, the main conflict in Laziness in the Fertile Valley comes from the intrusion of a go-between matchmaker in the community who is trying to find a new wife for Hafez (the patriarch). Rafik, in particular, sees this invasion as a threat of catastrophic proportions and makes ready disrupt the proceedings by any means necessary…except leaving the house.

Laziness in the Fertile Valley is my second favorite of Cossery’s novels, behind only The Jokers. Sloth and rest seem good to me right about now, but I also think that using humor as a reprieve from the violence and oppression of social forces is more potent than turning ones back on it. Similarly, there is a deep conservatism baked into Laziness, wherein the ambition is to reject all change. Traces of the same argument might be found in The Jokers, but it is not nearly so pronounced since the characters in that novel do have broader public ambitions. The latter option is a privilege most do not get to enjoy. There was a still an enormous amount of humor in this novel as Cossery subverts tropes of oriental laziness and generational family dramas, but it came up short of The Jokers in my estimation.

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I still have one more book to write about from my reading backlog, Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night, an odd little riff on Don Quixote about a Spanish anarchist living in Paris for two decades after the Spanish Civil War, strangled by his memories and now forced to return to Madrid.This past month has been something of a struggle both in general and in terms of the time I have been able to dedicate to reading. I am persisting, though, and am currently reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s beautiful and deeply moving novel The End of Days.

Tracking what I read

Just a short thought on how I record what I read, recent changes to that system, and some potential avenues.

I made a point of recording everything I read before graduate school, but as my reading fell off a cliff, I fell out of that habit. When I returned to reading beyond my immediate academic needs, which, not coincidentally, was the same semester I took my comprehensive exams in 2013, I resumed the habit of recording what I read, starting a google doc with a simple list: date, author, title. Recently, I wanted to start digging a little bit more, and have started recording some additional data that correspond with some goals I have related to my reading. The list now includes the same information as before, but also a list of the original languages of the books and a tally of female authors, awards the books won, and, broadly speaking, the genre. Based on this information, I started compiling a spreadsheet that charts my reading by month and (annually) in certain specific categories.

I am now wondering, though, whether tallying my reading by the book is granular enough. I tend to read a lot of really long books, none longer than War and Peace, which I worked through last year, which necessarily cuts into the total number of books I read in a year. As a result, I am toying with the idea of also recording the number of pages in the books completed in a month in order to get a better picture of how much I am reading in a given month. There are of course problems with this, not least of which the logical extreme would be to demand a way to record every word read, which is an absurdist impossibility. I do want a way to give credit for reading longer books, particularly now that I am both aching and mentally bracing to reading Infinite Jest. So, I am curious: has anyone tried charting books this way?

Related to all of this is how I keep tabs of the academic books I read. My relationship to academic work is a topic for another post that I am delaying because my magic eight ball keeps responding with “try again later,” but, in general, falls into two categories: “this is relevant to my work” and “this looks interesting.” I take copious notes (on the same system I developed for myself when I was taking my comprehensive exams), but now with an eye towards things like teaching and potential research projects. Inspired by other folks online, one of the things I would like to do is to become more organized about how I approach academic reading and also to branch out in terms of whose work I read, prioritizing younger and more diverse voices. The other reason I want to start recording this information is to become more aware of exactly how much academic reading I do. The answer is usually a lot, but I also know that it has tailed off this semester since I have been preoccupied with applications, editing my dissertation, and teaching. Most of those things are behind me now and there is no time like the present to get more organized.

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

This is the second backlogged write up. I finished reading Ancillary Justice about two weeks ago, so there is a little bit more reflection and a little less that I remember by way of detail.

Ancillary Justice won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel in 2014 and has been on my radar for a few years now both because I heard nothing but good things and because it is part of my conscious effort to read more books written by women. In retrospect, I find it a book completely deserving of winning these awards and, simultaneously, did not like it as much as I feel is its critical reception.

The first part of the novel alternates between two timelines. In the first, an ancillary soldier (more on this in a moment) going by the name Breq is on an icy world searching for a weapon of extraordinary power and stumbles across another soldier, drug addicted, who Breq is sure she knew many hundreds of years ago. This is because Breq is the last splinter of an artificial intelligence known as Justice of Toren that inhabited the systems of a massive starship and thousands of ancillaries–human bodies equipped with technology that allows them to be activated by that AI. The second timeline takes place twenty years earlier on Shis’urna, the last planet annexed by the Radchaai. Despite the power of the Radchaai, their absolute faith in their civilizing mission, and a relative lack of opposition on Shis’urna, the annexation did not go smoothly. When the lieutenant from Justice of Toren uncovers an attempt to frame the local inhabitants for an armed uprising, it sets in motion a series of events that reveal a growing schism in Radchaai, involving their leader, Anaander Mianaai herself. In the fallout, Justice of Toren is destroyed.

The two timelines collapse into a single for narrative for the second part, as Breq and Seivarden, the found soldier, work out a scheme to kill Anaander Mianaai.

Several aspects of Ancillary Justice are refreshing. The AI systems raise issues of dispersed personalities, since each ancillary is simultaneously in its individual role *and* part of an intelligence that has been “alive” for thousands of years, and obliquely address hyper-surveillance.

Another core theme is “civilization.” Within the story Radchaai is: a) a planet; b) an empire; c) the people in the empire and the language they speak, and d) the word for civilization. What’s more, the Radchaai language doesn’t distinguish between men and women, so Leckie uses the female pronoun throughout, except when the characters converse with backward peoples outside Radchaai space, which leads to a great deal of confusion. Within the story, there are people who exhibit masculine or feminine characteristics after a sort and there are sexual encounters, but without our traditional assumptions about the roles. These gender roles are placed by hierarchies dictated by class, both in terms of financial resources and social status. The issues of class are further exacerbated because the Radchaai military is undergoing to a reorganization to allow provincial and lower-class citizens to rise into positions of leadership—a change that is vehemently opposed by many of the older families.

Ancillary Justice was refreshingly disorienting. I spent the first portion of the book reorienting my assumptions and expectations; it was mildly irritating, but I recognized that it was both intentional and novel such that I thought that this was one of the strongest components of the book.

Where I struggled with Ancillary Justice was in determining whether I thought the plot worked. This is not to say this was poorly crafted. The technical elements of the plot are excellent and the twists on an otherwise generic setting make that work too. And yet the plot seemed to me to be overly formulaic, mostly a vehicle for the other concepts at play. On the one hand, this does make issues of class and dispersed personalities come to the fore more clearly; on the other hand, I had to keep asking myself if I found it compelling. In particular, I was underwhelmed by the immediate setting: decayed empire going through transition and fragmentation, which, while perhaps relevant to the contemporary world, also felt like a (somewhat) stale riff on the fall of Rome. This is evergreen material for stories, of course and has been omnipresent in science fiction basically since such thing existed, but it this version didn’t seem to me to be saying anything new on this front.

Rereading the last paragraph has me wondering if I am being harsher than I actually mean to be. Those *were* the issues that kept bubbling up as I read, but it makes it seem as though Ancillary Justice. It was not. There is a lot to like about the novel and I am curious to see whether some of my qualms subside when the (pun intended) ancillary elements of the story is established and therefore requires less attention in the text.

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I have finished reading Albert Cossery’s Laziness in the Fertile Valley and Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night and will be getting to these write-ups in the near future. Next up: Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days.

The World of Ice and Fire – George R.R. Martin, et al

Note: this is the first of two or three book write ups that are part of a backlog that developed because of a) dissertation revisions, b) a leaving town for a conference, and c) grading. I finished this book more than two weeks ago and hope to be able to write more frequently going forward.

One of the things I have always loved about fantasy and science fiction novels is the world building. It was for this reason that I dismiss the (perfectly valid) criticism that a series like the Wheel of Time became too unwieldy and has too many point of view characters to maintain a riveting story. These extra characters that might unbalance the plot a little bit also allow you to explore the world in more depth even while often playing out a take on a familiar apocalyptic story arc.

Full disclosure: I also own and like the flawed The World of the Wheel of Time, which tried many of the same things as The World of Ice and Fire, but, ultimately fell a little bit short. One might also offer the same critique in comparing the world building of the two series.

The World of Ice and Fire is an illustrated, encyclopedic history of the world in which the The Song of Ice and Fire is set, running from the dawn of time up nearly to the most recent books (it is dedicated to King Tommen). It is at once lush and full of detail and maddeningly and clearly incomplete. On the one hand, it explicitly avoids recounting stories told in narrative form elsewhere on the grounds that those histories have already been told; on the other, it is written in the form of a history, meaning that it often alludes to controversies and theories, judging them for which is most accurate, and avoiding mention of subjects that might be touchy for the patron of the work, with no mention of rival kings or Tommen’s parentage. Moreover, it is suggested that this work was in the making for a number of years since the dedication to King Tommen is over one or more names that has been blotted out. Then there is the issue of information unknown even to the Maesters of the Citadel, whether because the necessary documents are lost, the history is unrecorded, or information about a distant land, has just never made its way to Westeros.

Having started in middle school, I have been reading A Song of Ice and Fire at this point for more than half my life. As a fan, I really, really liked this book. The World of Ice and Fire strikes a fantastic balance between offering new information about the world and its deep history, while not devolving into a pure reference book. A few minor quibbles on issues of consistency (for which I can make a case for intentionality) aside, the artwork is also gorgeous, giving new vibrancy. One might have wanted more information about, say, the relationship between Houses Stark and Bolton, but the author of this history makes it clear that that is not the history he is telling. Instead, it is a history of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and their place in the wider world. The detailed history of the North (or the Vale or the Reach or Dorne) is simply not relevant to that project.

I also found The World of Ice and Fire a fascinating read as a historian. The purported historian often offers digressions on topics that might be of interest (e.g. the origins of the Hightower at Oldtown), and engages in debates about over the veracity of myths and mentions the previous research that the work is based on. These fictional histories lend credibility to this work and offer anther layer of depth to the world building. Now: this is a particular vision of history. There is some small focus on the general characteristics of “peoples” (in a crude ethnic sort of sense), but movers of events are the great men and women of the past. This is, after all, a history of the Seven Kingdoms written for the king(s).

In sum, I really like The World of Ice and Fire and highly recommend it for anyone who likes the series.*

*I can’t speak for anyone whose interest in in the TV show.

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Next up, I have a backlog of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Albert Cossery’s Laziness in the Fertile Valley. I am currently reading Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night.

Palace of Desire – Naguib Mahfouz

You imply there’s a difference between prestige and learning! There’s no true knowledge without prestige and wealth. and why are you talking about learning as though it’s one thing?..Some kinds of knowledge are appropriate for tramps and others belong to the pashas of the world.

How can you describe a spirit using corporeal expressions

Long live the revolution!

The second book in Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire, picks up seven years after the events of Palace Walk. Our protagonists have aged in the intervening years and have just now seemed to recover from the tragedy that struck the family at the conclusion of the last book, but the most notable development is that al-Sayyid Ahmad has loosened his authoritarian grip over his family–not always for the better. Palace of Desire is perhaps most characterized by how the characters begin to strip away the layers of formality and constructed roles, seeing who their family members are for the first time.

The bulk of Palace of Desire is dedicated to the stories of the three remaining men of the family, al-Sayyid Ahmad and his sons Yasin and Kamal. al-Sayyid has only recent resumed his attending the raucous parties thrown by his friends and is utterly infatuated with the lute-player Zanuba, who dreams of being a wife. The older son, Yasin, is one of the villains of Palace Walk and continues in his philandering ways through a second and, in quick succession, third marriage. Both marriages are scandalous and cause his father no end of grief, particularly when their amorous affairs come into contact. Yet, where Yasin is indulgent with women and drink to the point to the point that he fails in his societal responsibilities, al-Sayyid is ever diligent in protecting his children.

The affairs of al-Sayyid Ahmad and Yasin are trapped in the past and it is therefore appropriate that the women they pursue are familiar to the reader from Palace Walk. In contrast, Kamal gets a coming of age story in three parts that all revolve around the same central issue: ought the family be looking to tradition or to the west. Now sixteen, he has grown into an intelligent and likable young man, traditional in his dress and disproportionate in his features, but, above all, firmly committed to the cause of Egyptian nationalism. Although his upbringing is old-fashioned and his background modest, al-Sayyid’s success as a merchant and good reputation won his son a position in a good school where Kamal made friends with the children of wealthy and influential families. However, where his friends are destined for lives of luxury or careers in the diplomatic corps, Kamal is determined to go to teacher’s school and pursue a career in writing, much to his father’s dismay.After all, al-Sayyid Ahmad believes the purpose of educating his sons is so that they can gain prestige in modern Egyptian society. At the same time, Kamal falls in love with Aida, the sister of his dear friend Husayn, but, while his heart longs for this elegant, westernized woman who has spent time in Paris, there remains the question of whether she is using him in order to manipulate someone else. Finally, in his despair, Kamal begins to dabble with things he sees as being outside the form of Islam he was raised with, including prostitutes, alcohol, and western science.

Palace of Desire is a specific location in the book (of Yasin’s new house), a metaphorical one for all of the male characters, and could be regarded as one of the overriding themes. However, I believe the dominant theme is how the characters gradually come to understand who their family members are rather. Frequently, this unveiling takes the form of coming to recognize what people actually do when their family is not watching, such as al-Sayyid’s sons seeing him drink and sing, Yasin and Kamal bumping into each other drunk at a prostitute’s door, or al-Sayyid reading an article on Darwin that Kamal published in a literary journal. Every character in the family, as well as those they interact with, project different version of themselves depending on the context and Mahfouz juxtaposes these externalizations with internal dialogue. Much of Palace of Desire, then, is dedicated to the gradual reconciling of the differences between the two.

My biggest problem with Palace of Desire, and why I think it is a modest step back from Palace Walk, is that the stories of the women felt incomplete. For instance, it is stated that Amina received additional freedoms in the intervening years, but as the story of the men takes them further and further from her walls, she is given proportionally less space. Her actions and words are well-conceived and I liked her moments, but she is no longer the rock of the family. Likewise, there is an episode in the middle of the story about domestic strife at Khadija and Aisha’s new home, particularly strife between Khadija and her mother-in-law, that requires al-Sayyid Ahmad to be drawn in as mediator. It is a marvelous scene, both because Khadija launches a devious propaganda campaign against her sister and mother-in-law and because it prompts al-Sayyid Ahmad to have a revelation regarding gender: that Khadija, despite being a woman, is his child who inherited most of his best qualities. But this arc mostly appears and then vanishes without reference to it elsewhere. As with Amina’s story, the result is that the the writing and characterization is excellent and the themes of these passages mesh with the rest of the story, but the tightly-knit family drama that explored issues of gender in such interesting ways in Palace Walk feels just a bit incomplete in Palace of Desire.

I started reading Palace of Desire shortly after President Trump tried to ban Muslims from entering the United States. I have owned the book for some time now, but chose it because I didn’t have literature by authors from the countries targeted by the ban and Mahfouz wrote in Arabic, so I figured it could serve as a stand-in. Mahfouz presents an Egypt in the throes of a nationalist movement, but trapped between the West and tradition (not necessarily Islam, but it plays a role), between indulging personal choice and fulfilling responsibility, and between the different responses one can have to the inevitability of change.

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I am currently reading two books, Ann Leckie’s Hugo-winning novel Ancillary Justice, which I found a bit difficult to get into but am now enjoying it, I think, and G.R.R. Martin’s The World of Ice and Fire, which I am enjoying the heck out of and have thoughts on both as a fan in terms of the actual material and as a historian in terms of the form.

Silent House – Orhan Pamuk

In the small coastal town of Cennethisar several hours from Istanbul there is an old house, one of the oldest in town. In this house there lives Fatma, a bedridden old Turkish woman who was forced to leave Istanbul years ago because of her husband’s actions, and with her lives Recep, a dwarf, one of her husband’s illegitimate children born to their maid some five decades earlier. For a week every summer the quiet tension of the house is broken by the arrival of her three grandchildren, the divorced historian Faruk, the leftist sister Nílgün, and Metín, a high school student obsessed with the exciting consumer luxuries of modernity. Rounding out this family drama is Hasan, a right-wing nationalist and Recep’s nephew.

The story unfolds over the course of a week as Faruk busies himself in the archives, Nílgün sunbathes and reads leftist publications, and Metín parties with his nouveaux ríche friends. Meanwhile Fatma and Recep are burdened with the memories of Selahattin, with the former being particularly concerned that Recep might be twisting her grandchildren against her. Despite how Fatma treats him, Recep is not threatening her legacy and the children are lost in their own little worlds. There is, however, imminent danger in the obsessions of young men.

Orhan Pamuk’s second novel, Silent House was published in Turkish in 1983 but only translated into English in 2012.  The core plot in Silent House is a variation on a family or dynastic epic, complete with each character representing a different group within the country and three children of different proclivities. At the same time, it differs from the classic examples of such a device (e.g. Hundred Years of Solitude and The Radetzky March), the conflict is compressed into the space of a week instead of dragging out over the course of years.

The style of Silent House is recognizably Pamuk. Each chapter switches between narrators, but interlocks to present a complete story. Silent House also broaches familiar themes, including that Turkey is torn between looking backward and envying countries they believe look forward, but his characters almost too bluntly embody the issues Pamuk wants to address. This is not to say that the characters don’t work for the story, but all of the younger people do not come across as particularly rounded outside what they stand for. The exception to this, and unsurprisingly the part of the part of the book I thought was the most successful, was the relationship between Fatma and Recep, both of whom exist in the present, but who also have the years of memories in which to round out and explain their characters. The younger people had lives outside of the week in the narration, but those lives are hardly explored with the result that their motivations fall back on their types.

All the hallmarks of a great Orhan Pamuk novel are already present in Silent House. The interlocking chapters, the insights about Turkey, and the interweaving of past and present are all there, but the execution is not as successfully realized as in his later novels such as My Name is Red, The Black Book, and Snow. If I had not already been a Pamuk fan I might have struggled with this book. Silent House is still worth reading, but fairly far down my list of favorite Pamuk novels and is certainly not one to start with.

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I am currently reading the second book in Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire. This is a book that has been on my shelf for some time, but I picked it up in light of recent events because it was originally written in Arabic.