The Reluctant Fundamentalist

I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back.

There are adjustments one must make if one comes here from America; a different way of observing is required. I recall the Americanness of my own gaze when I returned to Lahore that winter when war was in the offing. I was struck at first by how shabby our house appeared, with cracks running through its ceilings and dry bubbles of paint flaking off where dampness had entered its walls…I was saddened to find it in such a state—no, more than saddened, I was shamed. This was where I came from, this was my provenance, and it smacked of my lowliness.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens with the simple question: “excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?” An unnamed, vigilant American is seated against the back wall of a cafe in Lahore when he is approached by the speaker, a bearded Pakistani who offers his assistance. The young man introduces himself as a lover of America and, in a one-sided conversation that lasts long into the night, explains his affinity for America and how he came to be in Lahore.

Changez was once a model immigrant to the United States. Elected from the cream of the international crop of applicants, he graduated at the top of the Princeton class of 2001 and won a job offer from the prestigious Underwood Samson corporate valuation firm. The sign-on bonus from the job allowed Changez to take a trip to Greece with scions of American wealth and fortune, where he meets Erica, a beautiful writer reeling from the death of her childhood love. Naturally, Changez falls for her.

The seeds of their courtship contribute to Changez’ charmed life, but the relationship that sprouts creates the first crack in the facade that will lead him back to Lahore. Memories of her old boyfriend form a labyrinth that Erica cannot escape; as much as she likes Changez and as much as he tries to help her, their relationship is doomed. Her condition deteriorates parallel to his relationship with America.

Then the Twin Towers fall. In an instant, Changez transforms from just another New Yorker to a Pakistani, a potential threat. He remains valued at work, but under a new level of scrutiny from his coworkers. Thoughts of the American war in Afghanistan and fears of a war with India intrude on his working hours, threatening his once-promising career. Now he grows a beard and soon he makes plans to return to Lahore where he becomes a teacher.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist uses a simple story-telling device to juxtapose two young men. The outgoing, talkative Pakistani Changez bears only passing resemblance to the guarded, watchful Changez in America. Mohsin Hamid gives no indication that Changez is an unreliable narrator, so the differences lay in his level of comfort. In Pakistan, Changez cheerfully talks about the women, the market, the waiter, the food, and his past; in the United States, even a successful immigrant is an outsider feeling his way around. At the same time, he is shocked to learn that the years in the United States alienated him from Pakistan when the home he returns to looks grungy and dilapidated to his western eyes.

This fundamental tension is at the heart of the book, with everything else serving to highlight it further. The romantic storyline, for instance, is effective, but feels like an extended metaphor about living in the past and the impossibility of Changez’ American ambitions. (The digital assistant for Bank of America is also named “Erica”.) I felt deep sympathy for Changez, particularly on the issue of feeling out of place, and could relate to the experience of relocating from the superficially new that is identified with America to the lived in that is somewhat worse for wear. In that sense, and not for the first time, I took slight issue with defining “America” synonymous with New York and New Jersey. But neither that complaint nor the somewhat predictable arc of the Lahore storyline detracts from a masterful novel.

In sum, I loved The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Hamid tackles the experience of disassociation and loss at a lively clip, with a protagonist who bears no visible scars. Exit West, his most recent novel is a bit more sophisticated and less predictable, but The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, deserves every accolade it received.

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I’ve fallen behind again and am giving up on writing about every book. I still plan to write about Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, but am delaying because I intend to watch the film again first. I also finished Brandon Sanderson’s Edgedancer, which is a perfectly pleasant installment in his Stormlight Archive world, but not something to read on its own. I’m now in the middle of Tana French’s The Broken Harbour, a riveting murder mystery set in Ireland.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

There is social unrest in England in 1806. Napoleon appears invincible and with Admiral Nelson dead the question on everyone’s mind is when, not if, he will invade. But there are other developments afoot. 

These events by all accounts began at an otherwise unremarkable meeting of the Society of Theoretical Magicians in York, where the scholarly society  congregates to discuss issues of the history of magic. The participants are not actual magicians, but learned in the history of British magic—or they were until the first practical magician any of them had ever met appeared and forced them to recant their pursuit. That practical magician, Mr. Norrell, with the aid of his trusty man Childermass who has been collecting every available book of magic, stakes a claim to being the only magician in Britain. Norrell makes himself of service to the government and restoring the life of Lady Pole, albeit with the help of a fairy, the man with Thistledown hair, to whom Norrell bargains away half of Lady Pole’s life.

Of course, Norrell is presumptuous in assuming his singularity, and it soon appears that there is a second magician, Jonathan Strange who the raving street magician Vinculus prophecies will help restore magic to England.

Norrell and Strange form a partnership that is complementary and combative. Norrell is bookish and controlling, where Strange is ambitious and creative. As their skills grow, Strange becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the secrets Norrell keeps and the restrictions he establishes, and they particularly clash over the fundamental nature of magic: Norrell wants a magic for the modern man, but Strange believes all magic is of the Fairy and therefore incompatible with the modern world. Where Norrell hones his skills in the refined security of a library at the beck and call of government ministers, Strange’s magic is put to the test in on the battlefields of Spain and Belgium.  These crucibles lead Strange to wildly inventive magic, but, to Norrell, they also engender a dangerous wildness in his erstwhile pupil.

Told in a format that blends the prose in an nineteenth century style with a presentation as a learned historical text of the sort that the theoretical magicians produce in the story, the windings of the plot in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are too long and intricate to do any justice here. What I can say is that while there is no love lost between myself and Mr. Dickens, whose stories this in some ways mimics, I was completely taken by this alternate history.

Clarke does a remarkable job of bringing the world of magic into early-nineteenth century England, seamlessly fitting an entire alternate history of this one aspect into the wider concerns of the day. Moreover, she breathes fresh life into an old trope from nineteenth century literature of the buttoned-up, scientific, modern man being challenged by unbridled forces that threaten him with destruction.

I had just one main complaint, which requires discussion of a particular plot point. (Consider yourself warned.) Vinculus’ prophecy about the tells of a third person, a man without a name who will become king. One person who feasibly fulfills this description is Stephen Black, the black servant of Sir Walter Pole. The man with Thistledown hair takes a shine to Stephen while visiting the Pole household, commenting on the nobility of his bearing and greatness of his spirit, showering him with royal gifts, and taking him into his entourage for the fairy balls. I liked the inclusion of a black man who would fulfill the prophecy and Stephen’s abhorrence at the methods of the man with Thistledown hair speak well enough for him, but for all of the buildup to Stephen’s greatness he is a passive character carried along by the whims of another who serves only to fulfill the prophecy. In the world of prophecy this works because it is an unexpected resolution, but in the world of a hefty novel it lags behind the rest of the characterization and plot.

My complaint about Stephen Black notwithstanding, though, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a brilliantly realized novel worth every one of its many pages.

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I recently finished Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective novel, The Maltese Falcon and Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive novella* Edgedancer, and am now reading Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

*novella is a relative definition here, barely squeaking in at 40,000 words, by any measure except in comparison to the main novels in the series.

The Idiot

“But civilization is based on lies.”

The Idiot, 361

The Idiot is a college novel that follows a single year in the life of a young first-year student. Selin is Turkish-American, the daughter of divorced parents, and arrives at Harvard in the fall of 1995.

At Harvard, Selin has a typical array of experiences for new students, meeting her roommates, making new friends, and getting adjusted to school. Selin’s classes are a mixed bag, but she particularly likes her Russian conversation class where she meets a fellow first-year Svetlana who becomes her closest friend and a senior mathematician from Hungary named Ivan. Selin finds herself falling for Ivan, engaging in an awkward and chaste romantic correspondence via email. This infatuation, one that is drawn out with the promise of consummation just over the horizon, drives Selin’s actions and therefore the plot, taking her finally to rural Hungary to teach English the following summer.

But overarching idea that lies behind The Idiot is the course Selin takes in her first semester: “Constructed Worlds,” a disorganized hodgepodge of movies, books, and ideas. Selin begins to see worlds constructed everywhere, from her own writing projects, to the traumatic story in the Russian conversation textbook, to the Hungarian villages—and, above all, in her digital relationship with Ivan.

The cover flap praises Batuman’s dry wit, and there is a certain ironic, observation humor that emerge from the absurdity that emerges from the admixture of the self-seriousness of college with that time in life. But it was not for me a laugh-out-loud comic novel. The strength of The Idiot lay in the raw emotions of Selin’s naïve love for a boy who both does and doesn’t have any idea what he is doing to her. The senior and the first-year are at very different places in their life, overlapped by a class and bridged by the tenuous and incomplete medium of email. And yet, for a year, Selin’s decisions are dictated by the whims of this older, unavailable man.

I read several reviews of The Idiot before picking it up that speculated about how much it is based on Batuman’s own experiences at a Turkish-American woman at Harvard in the mid-nineties who has also written extensively about Russian literature. Certainly Batuman infuses The Idiot with sense of place that feels like Boston in general and the Harvard area in particular, but this issue of Harvard stayed with me while I read the book. There were, on the one hand, numerous points that were universal to the college experience, but, on the other, I was struck by the sense of Harvardian [sic] exceptionalism. Everyone is smart, everyone is talented, and they come from diverse backgrounds. This makes for a colorful cast of characters, but also underscores that this is not a typical college story. Rather, it is one about the constructed world of Harvard.

In short, I enjoyed The Idiot. It is a smart novel, thoughtful and well-written, but I also thought it fell a bit short of its lofty praise. 

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Between a brief trip and the end of the semester, I’ve fallen off writing about books I’ve been reading about in the past few weeks, but have recently finished both Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. I plan to write about both in the near future. Last night I started reading Brandon Sanderson’s Edgedancer.

I Saw Her That Night

It all stank of slivovitz and death. It was nonsense, that oath, nonsense, as Veronika would have said, she who laughed at our first meeting when I told her why we ride into battle, nonsense to fight against everyone who’s ganged up against us, as well as those who betrayed us. But then fight we did, we killed, and it stank of fear and death.

Everywhere life is resurgent, but I’ve been colonized by death, I’ve seen too many dying people to be able to enjoy this summer as everything starts over against, human death has occupied my thoughts like a gnawing rat

As a woman I know that memories of past love are sometimes more powerful than the chains we bind ourselves with, even if just symbolically and for fun.

In the waning months of World War 2, chaos reigns in Slovenia. Nationalist and communist insurgents hold the forests, the reeling Germans still hold the towns, and normal life is practically impossible. In the confusion, Veronika Zelnik and her wealthy husband disappear, taken from their home one night, never to return. I Saw Her That Night unfolds like a mystery trying to uncover what happened from five distinct viewpoints, linked only by their relationship to her. Each chapter is told by the narrator blending the discomfort of the present with the nostalgia and trauma of the past. The result is a brilliantly realized novel.

The first chapter opens with Stevan Radovanović, a Slovenian soldier turned guerilla whose horseback lessons for Veronika turned into an illicit liaison that saw her run away with him. But their romance was doomed from the start, and the second viewpoint is that of Veronika’s mother, who convinced her to return to her husband. The mother gives way to the German doctor who she writes because he was friendly with Veronika and therefore might know if she survived the war. The doctor gives way to Jaži, the housekeeper, and finally to Jeranek, the Slovenian man who sometimes worked on the estate.

Each person is haunted by memories of Veronika and filled with questions. What happened to her? What could I have done? Did I do the right thing? Was I complicit in her death?

Despite not being a point of view character, I Saw Her That Night is built around the character of Veronika Zelnik. Her narrative arc begins innocently enough, with her husband commissioning a cavalry officer to give her riding lessons while the country was at peace. Around the time she returns to her husband Slovenia is occupied by German forces, and her husband frequently hosts their officers which gives her a chance to show off the fluency in the language and fascination with German culture she acquired while studying in Berlin. Leon Zelnik also gives supplies to the insurgents, but his coziness with the Germans nevertheless breeds resentment among those who have less than he does.

I was occasionally disappointed in the presentation of Veronika, though. In particular, she comes across as a manic pixie dream girl who everyone cannot help but love. She is a strident pacifist who the soldier hates at first encounter, a charming and persuasive hostess, and a caring woman who rescues Jeranek and drives his girlfriend to a doctor, but whose flirty interactions with other men nevertheless stoke the flames of his jealousy. This presentation is made more acute because we are never given Veronika’s side of the story and I was reconciled to it because each narrator gives a slightly different picture of the same woman. It is clear that each character is operating with partial information and they are all frequently mistaken about Veronika’s actions and intentions, with tragic consequences.

I Saw Her That Night, which is primarily set a couple of years before its author Drago Jančar was born, is a deeply moving novel about the memory of national trauma, with Veronika’s disappearance standing in for the larger conflict. I didn’t know what to expect when I picked this one from a list of “best” Eastern European novels, but was richly rewarded with one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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I am now reading William Gibson’s Nebula- and Hugo-winning, classic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. So far I’m finding it to be a disorienting read.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Cram them full of noncombustable data, chock them full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.

Once, years ago, I picked up this book, possibly to complete the triptych with 1984 and A Brave New World. I found it painfully dull at the time and never finished, until now. (I only have vague memories of being bored by A Brave New World, too, and should give it a fair shake outside of English class.)

Fahrenheit 451 is fundamentally the story of Guy Montag. Guy’s profession is “fireman”, his job is to burn contraband books, to prevent the spread of illicit knowledge. Houses these days are fireproof, but books still burn, so the firemen simply turn on their kerosene-spewing hoses. “It was a pleasure to burn,” Guy thinks in the opening line.

But Guy has a crisis of faith that is prompted by two events. First, Guy meets his neighbor Clarisse on the way home from work. Clarisse, he thinks, is a little bit strange, and so is her family. She walks places, for instance, and looks at the stars and the moon, and her family sits on their porch and talks to one another, rather than surrounding themselves with the usual immersive video screens. Clarisse asks questions that make him think. Questions like “are you happy?”

The second strikes to the heart of things, when Guy discovers one night that his wife Mildred has gone through her usual routine of putting on her seashells (headphones), but also consumed an entire bottle of sleeping pills, forcing him to call for medical aid to revive her. Instead of doctors, he gets technicians, who revive Mildred, but also callously dismiss it as a plumbing problem. When she wakes, Mildred has no memory of what happened and returns to her stories.

These two things cause Guy to reevaluate life and start to ask questions about the books he is sworn to burn. His crisis is kicked into overdrive when a woman decides that she is going to burn with her books. Despite the best efforts of Captain Beatty to rein in his man and Mildred’s horror at the changes in her husband, Guy becomes a pariah, an unlikely devotee of the written word and slips into a conspiracy to revive book culture.

While Fahrenheit 451 didn’t stand out as one of my favorite books, there was a lot I liked about the world Bradbury dreamed up for it. This is a world where people are surrounded by screens, but instead of the screens watching you or being watched, they become an immersive experience to make the viewer feel like part of the action. At the same time, Mildred seems to represent a facet of the existential emptiness that this “engagement” creates, particularly when juxtaposed with Clarisse’s habit of looking at the stars and talking with people in person. (I also appreciated that while Mildred and Clarisse represent a binary, almost allegorical choice between civilization and nature, Clarisse was never an object of sexual interest.) There was also a fascinating moment near the end of the book when Bradbury (perhaps unintentionally) opened the door to the return to an oral culture. Memorization of individual texts was offered as a way to legally preserve knowledge, with the idea that each person has a text that they could then pass down to another generation until such time that books were legal again. But any student of oral tradition could tell you that there is a tension between the amazing longevity of oral knowledge and the fact that it is not a static text the way that a book is. So my question is what do these texts look like in multiple generations?

Perhaps I’m just being contrary, but I did have a beef, not with the book, but with the marketing. The key conceit in Fahrenheit 451 is that people need to be sedated, calmed by unimpeachable facts and seduced by immersive stories. There is a war about to happen, so perhaps there is a government mandate on these policies, but it comes across as self-policing since it is a book about the people who burn books and the people who snitch on those who read books. Any totalitarian apparatus is largely invisible. Moreover, we are told that the problem with books is that they make people melancholic, confused and troubled by the contradictory ideas. Is this censorship? Maybe, but I think there is a difference between cutting a single book or parts of a book for expressing ideas deemed inappropriate, and burning all books for having ideas, while filling minds with advertisements, immersive soap operas, and anodyne facts that are the facsimile of thinking.

In sum, I liked Fahrenheit 451 and understand what makes it a classic, but it spoke to me less as a broad critique of society and more as a critique of its time of which there are still resonances.

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Things are starting to pick up since the semester starts next week and job ads starting to come out, but I am determined to keep reading. Right now, I am in the middle of Charles Mann’s 1491, the companion to 1493.

Five Short Reviews

I’ve been struggling to find words to write about books I’ve read recently, for a variety of reasons. It has turned into a very busy summer teaching, preparing to teach, and writing my own (non-fiction) book, and the result has been that I just want to retreat into whatever book I’m reading in the little downtime I get. I am still reading and want to say something about these books, so I’ve decided to clear out some of my backlog with five short reviews of fewer than 100 words each. Some of these are deserving of more, but this is about catching up and I liked each of these books, so brevity should not be taken as an indictment.

The Company She Kept — Archer Mayer

Joe Gunther is a Vermont detective of the old type. Gunther’s depth comes because the novels have charted the lives of him and his team for three decades. In this 2015 installment, Gunther’s team is brought on to solve the murder of Susan Raffner, a state senator found hanging from a cliff, “DYKE” carved into her chest. The deceased is a confidant of Gail Zigman, the governor and Joe’s ex-girlfriend. This is a lesser novel in the series, being much more interested in debates about sexuality than in the team and building to an anti-climactic reveal. Adequate, but unspectacular.

Assassin’s Quest — Robin Hobb

The culmination to the trilogy that began with Assassin’s Apprentice. King Regal has abandoned much of Buck kingdom to the raiders and withdrawn inland to his mother’s home, surrounding himself with sycophants and violent criminals. Fitz, who most believe dead, must set off into the mountains to find Valiant—the rightful king—before it is too late. Hobb sticks the landing for this set of novels, carrying through a fantasy series driven by emotional stakes and putting Fitz through the emotional ringer by forcing him to give up his youthful fantasies in the process of becoming an adult.

Nazi Literature in the Americas — Roberto Bolaño

Nazis and Nazi-sympathizers come in all shapes, and not all wear a sign of their affiliation. This idiosyncratic books is a fictional encyclopedia of Nazi authors in the Western Hemisphere from the early twentieth century through first quarter (or so) of the twenty-first. The format does not lend itself to plot and many of the characters are presented in a flat, clinical manner, but their stories are nevertheless told with a degree of dark, dry humor. The horror, by contrast, comes from their normalcy. Probably not the Bolaño book to start with, but I’m looking forward to reading another.

The Vegetarian — Han Kang

Yeong-hye is normal enough before a singular act of defiance, the decision to become a vegetarian, changes everything. Told in three acts through the eyes of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law, and sister, The Vegetarian is about one woman’s attempt to reclaim her body by controlling what goes into it. The three external narrators give this book a surreal and horrifying aspect since everyone else sees her as an insensate lunatic to correct or exploit, but utterly irrational, while, in return, she is totally removed from the ways in which her choice—and it is her choice—has consequences for her family.

Visitations — Jenny Erpenbeck

Lingering at a property on Brandenburg Lake near Berlin, this novel is woven from the lives of the inhabitants that lived there in the twentieth century, even if fleetingly. Between each episode, the gardener trims and maintains. Erpenbeck’s ethereal prose, even in translation, gives the sense that the characters are ghosts brought back to share their experiences. Each episode is linked by the connection to this place, and I found them variously affecting on their own right, with the story of a young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis particularly powerful.

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Since resolving to do this, I have also finished reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and am now taking a second crack at Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a book that I gave up on once before.

The Mersault Investigation – Kamel Daoud

The central event in Albert Camus’ The Stranger is Mersault’s cold-blooded murder of an unnamed Arab in the 2 o’clock hour on the beach. The murder leads to his trial and execution—albeit more for his failure to weep for the death of his mother than for the actual act. The Arab, we are told, is the brother to a Frenchman’s mistress, but otherwise remains utterly unknown. Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation breathes life into this space.

The story unfolds as told some seventy later by Harun, the nameless Arab’s younger brother in a series of conversations with a student who has come to Algeria to learn the truth behind The Stranger.

Harun reflects on the irony of how his brother is erased in Camus’ text, making him simultaneously famous and unknown. In telling the story about his life after the death of his brother, Harun realizes that he is the Algerian mirror-image of Mersault. He kills a Frenchman for more reasons than Mersault has in killing his brother, but where Mersault is sentenced to death, Harun is dismissed without trial, perhaps because his mother yet lives. He has a failed relationship with an urban woman and where Mersault dies shunned by crowds, Harun lives with an audience of one, if he is to be believed.

The result is a brilliant post-colonial response to the The Stranger. Daoud takes what is effectively a philosophical story about the absurd that focuses on colonizer and turns it on its head. He condemns the original book for its solipsistic gaze on the colonial establishment that eliminates the colonized—up to and including the way in which is labels Algerians “Arabs”, but develops many of the same themes of absurdity and isolation equally to the colonial experience. For instance, Harun tells how his interpretation of religion has left him unusual among his countrymen after the revolution. The Mersault Investigation largely avoids the political and historical consequences of colonialism, but instead uses its intertextuality as a lens through which to explore issues of identity and colonial narratives, including the absurdity irony that this story is prompted by an unnamed, probably French, student setting out to learn the truth of this famous book.

I really loved The Mersault Investigation and think that it lives up to the accolades it received, but feel compelled to add that this is best read in conjunction with The Stranger since its strength derives from the resonances and dissonances with the earlier book.

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I just finished reading Han Kang’s rather horrifying novel The Vegetarian, which is fundamentally about the abuse of a woman’s body by all of the people in her life.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

Online there was sex and security and plenty and glamour.

In a once-vibrant city hemmed in by an approaching civil war, two people meet while taking a night class. Saeed is fascinated and intimidated by Nadia. The former is quiet, reserved, and a simple traditionalist. Not a radical, but Romantic and nostalgic. The latter presents a formal, cloaked form to the world, but beneath it is a fiercely independent woman who veils her body precisely so that she may act as she wishes.

Their affair begins innocuously enough, but becomes increasingly fraught as war disrupts the routines of life. Together they exit west, passing through doors to other worlds. First they land in Mykonos, then London, and finally outside San Fransisco. Nadia and Saeed are forever linked, but where she becomes liberated, he succumbs to his nostalgia. The relationship is doomed to failure, but not out of malice. Nadia and Saeed cling to each other, first out of affection and then out of familiarity. Indeed, the shared trauma of dislocation extends an affair that could have ended as unremarkably as it started simply because people change.

Exit West is a beautiful and tender emigration story. Hamid does not name Nadia and Saeed’s home city, but it is a Pakistani setting that could also be a composite of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, all deeply torn by the Syrian Civil War that began in 2011. When the war closes the world open to people online and by phone collapses into the immediate concerns of survival, and the opportunities for sensuality, through sex and drugs and other forms of pleasure, disappear. Gone is the world that allowed Saeed’s parents to lead satisfying and well-rounded lives in the city and in their own home. The young lovers cling to each other to preserve what they can, remembering what might have been through their bodies.

Escape comes at a price and each time they they enter lands of plenty, it is with nothing to their names. Hamid’s focus in Exit West is the consequences of each move on Nadia and Saeed, and how they experience the world. News of hatred and war and political actions are dim observations rather than the central issue because that is how the protagonists experience these things. The result is a sad and sympathetic story of two people trying to find their way in the world.

Violence is omnipresent, surrounding and affecting Nadia and Saeed, but only directly touching them once. Each chapter of the main narrative is further divided by interludes that give a glimpse of someone and somewhere else. Doors and windows feature also prominently in these passages and serve to reinforce the transience and fragility of life.

Exit West is a story of loss and dislocation, remembering and forgetting, but it is also fundamentally optimistic. This emerges in the story’s conclusion (which I will not go into here), but also in the way in which the protagonists look at the world. Both Nadia and Saeed are looking for a better life, first in their intimate relationships and employment, but later in terms of safety and security. These ambitions drive them. They resist the temptation to turn bitter at the violence and hatred that they encounter, instead choosing to embrace the kindness and generosity of people they meet.

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I just finished reading Inventing Ethan Allen, a study about the cultural memory of Vermont’s founding “patriot.”

The Architect’s Apprentice, Elif Shafak

At the height of Suleiman the Magnificent’s reign a curious pair arrive in Istanbul. One is a young white elephant named Chota, the other a twelve year old boy named Jahan, both allegedly from India. The elephant and mahout join the Sultan’s menagerie, a position adjacent to the opulence of court, but fraught with risk. Safety lies in Chota’s ability to win the favor of the Sultan, through tricks and through utility in war and peace—and certainly not in Jahan becoming smitten with the Princess Mihrimah, who desires to know where this pair came from. Nor does Jahan’s life become easier once he catches the attention of the royal architect, Sinan, who takes him on as apprentice. Instead, Jahan finds himself caught up in his master’s feuds that swirled and eddied around the construction of some of the crown jewels of Ottoman architecture.

At some level, The Architect’s Apprentice is a novel without a plot—or one with several light plots connected by Jahan. One follows Jahan’s infatuation with Mihrimah, others follow Jahan’s other relationships, including with Captain Gareth who saw him installed in the palace for nefarious purposes and with the the Roma, who adopt him as family. Another is the titular plot, following Jahan’s relationship with Sinan and the other apprentices, first during the master’s life and then in the wake of his death. Beyond resistance from Sinan’s enemies at court, the projects do not progress without complication, for reasons that become apparent.

The virtue of this approach is to follow Jahan as he grows up, surrounding him with an eccentric cast of characters and getting lost among the rising mountains of mosques on the streets of Istanbul. In this, Shafak is partially successful. Some of the characters are funny or insightful or interesting, but too often I found them flat and acting from motivations that were opaque until telling Jahan a story about it after the fact. The narrow narrative focus on Jahan thus is an inherent limitation, particularly because I was generally uninterested in him as a character. On the one hand, hidden motivations can provide a story depth, but this combined with the flat characters gave the sense that there were two distinct stories, one being told by or to Jahan that is superficial, and another more interesting one lurking beneath the surface.

The saving grace for me was the ulterior message of this hidden story. At its best, The Architect’s Apprentice is a story that interrogates the fissures between the face we show to the world, the image the world projects on us, the underlying assumptions, beliefs, and relationships that inform these stories, and the lives we lead. Beneath the surface of every person or object is a story and each story contains a secret.

The Architect’s Apprentice was not totally satisfying for me, but Shafak showed me enough that I am going to give her books another shot.

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I have since finished Mohsin Hamid’s beautiful Exit West and begun Inventing Ethan Allen, by John J. Duffy and H. Nicholas Muller III.

Two Short Reviews: The Buddha in the Attic and Journey into the Past

The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book, but one of my favorite slices of literature recently has been books written by Japanese-American women, so I picked it up on a whim. The result was somewhat surprising, but not disappointing.

The Buddha in the Attic is a group biography of Japanese picture brides—women who left their families in Japan and crossed the Pacific Ocean to marry men in California who they had never met in the early 20th century. In succession the book follows these women from their voyage to the meeting, to their relationships, children, lives, and departure to the internment camps in 1942.

Some of the women receive names, but rarely individual personalities. Instead, this is a true group biography that captures diversity within their collective experience. As a group they were transplanted to a new world, married men who were not like the pictures they saw, and were rejected by their new country. Individually, they had affairs, dreams, and heartbreaks, leaving mementos behind.

The result is a poignant slice of lives, with a highly specific spotlight on a fundamentally American story of acceptance and rejection.

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Journey into the Past – Stefan Zweig

Ludwig is an ambitious young German scientist taken into his employer’s home as a secretary and confidant. There he falls in love with his employer’s wife, a feeling she reciprocates. They delay their feelings, first out of a sense of propriety and then because he departs for a two year stint in Mexico, only to be trapped there by the outbreak of World War One. When their communication falters, Ludwig marries and has children in Mexico, but when he is able to return to Germany after the war he attempts to recapture that moment he lost from his youth.

On the one hand, I was put off by the triteness of the sexual cliches at the heart of Journey in the Past, both in the arc where a young man falls in love with the wife of an employer or other authority figure and in the arc where the slightly older man ignores any loyalty to his family in order to complete the conquest of a woman he thought was his due from an early age in his life. The first is an issue I have had with Zweig before, notably in Confusion, while the latter is a toxic fallacy regarding the relationship between men and women.

The problem is on the other hand. Zweig does not wholly exonerate Ludwig’s behavior even while couching it in terms that seem designed to make them understandable. Both characters have changed and the period of young love has left them both behind, and this, ultimately, is the message.

I appreciate Zweig’s observations on a number of fronts, some of which hit close to home. For instance:

Outwardly his title of Doctor, cheap but impenetrable armour, made up for his low social status, and at the office his fine achievements disguised the still sore and festering wounds of his youth, when he had felt ashamed of his poverty and of taking charity. So no, he was not going to sell the handful of freedom he now had, his jealously guarded privacy, not for any sum of money.

I just wish that Zweig’s plots offered a less problematic vehicle to explore these issues.

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I am now reading Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice.