This is a novel about “amazing lives of ordinary people under the most unimaginable of circumstances.” It brings us a beautiful reminder not to judge: “Everyone affected by war, captivity, or oppression reacts differently – and away from it, people might try to guess how they would act, or react, in the circumstances. But they do not really know.”
In such circumstances there is always a Cilka. Cecilia Klein was “the bravest person” known to Lale, the tattooist of Auschwitz, whom we know from Heather Morris’ novel by the same name. “She was beautiful, a tiny little thing, and she saved my life” – Lalo’s testimony to Cilka, the 16 year old raped for three years by SS officers when and as they pleased, who found herself to be punished for this by another ideology which came to power. The novel made me think that it does not matter how you call a certain ideology, they bring suffering, regardless of their aim. To be released from rape in one camp, to suffer the same treatment in another, although under a different flag, it makes no difference to the victim. Still, the novel is not about ideologies, it is about stamina and resilience in beyond believable circumstances first in a concentration camp then in a gulag.
I will never understand how is it possible to make people suffer so much. Solzhenitsyn offers an answer: ‘To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good. Or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.’ What natural law is that, I wonder. Cilka and many others lived and battled not just to live but to retain their humanity. In most adverse circumstances, she put the needs of others above hers, and she expected nothing in return. This is a natural law, by me.
A warmly recommended reading. Thank you, Heather Morris!
“So many things had a way of looking finer, when they were not so close.” is to me the light-motive of this novel. An estimated 30000 women were concealed, incarcerated and forced to labour in so-called Magdalene laundries run by the Catholic church with the tacit agreement of the Irish state. The last Magdalene house was closed down in 1996. The unanswered questions, the unseen lives of thousands of women and their children inspired the novel.
A work of historical fiction, it nevertheless seemed very realistic to me. The Irish way of speaking definitely helped me get into the atmosphere of the pre-Christmas period of 1985 in an Irish town. I looked at those laundries through the eyes of a father of five daughters, a coal and timber merchant, the main character of this book by the name of Bill Furlong. There is a very clear turning point in the otherwise steady life of this man when he asked himself the eternal question: “As they carried on along and met more people Furlong did and did not know, he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?” His rescue of a young woman from the Magdalene laundry triggered an insight into his own birth story. His mother and him could have had the same faith as these thousands of women if there would not have been for the big heart of their patron, who took care of them. And these are not small things at all when you think about it.
I had a beatific smile on my face when I started reading it. It must have been the effect of Saramago’s beautiful writing style all the way.
If you think your job is boring, read this novel which takes you into the life of a clerk at the Central Registry. Senhor Jose, a lonely civil servant, dutiful during the day and bored at night, challenges his own boredom with the task of finding out what he can about an unknown woman, whose card got attached to the cards of famous people he collected clippings on to fill his evenings. He goes through a great deal of pain in the process, exhausts himself mentally and physically, to just realize how equally unimportant are the lives and deaths.
Saramago serves the readers some of his philosophical takes on life, as his characters see it: “Strictly speaking, we do not make decisions, decisions make us. The proof can be found in the fact that, though life leads us to carry out the most diverse actions one after the other, we do not prelude each one with a period of reflection, evaluation and calculation, and only then declare ourselves able to decide if we will go out to lunch or buy a newspaper or look for the unknown woman.” Or here: “a cemetery like this is a kind of library which contains not books but buried people, it really doesn’t matter, you can learn as much from people as from books.”
Anyone who doubts the value of ethical journalism need to read “A Hundred and One Days” by Asne Seierstad. The dedication of journalists in the midst of change is priceless especially in the era of know-it and believe-it-all social media. The risks they take in conflicts and war areas are beyond comprehension to those in front of screens in the comfort of our homes.
You’ll find the description of the book and the events it covers during the US army invasion of Iraq in other sources, so, no need for me to repeat it here. Yet again Seierstad offers us a literary journalism of the highest quality. I learned so much about so many things I knew nothing about the life of Iraqi. I will share some of these:
“The truth about the war in Iraq does not exist. Or rather, there are millions of true accounts and maybe just as many lies. My remit as a journalist in the chaos of war was not to judge, predict or analyse. It was to look, ask and report.”
“In the 1970s this was a beautiful country. We had the best education system, the best healthcare in the Arab world. Oil gave us riches. In 1990 I had a Mercedes, says the bookseller. – Now I have these two legs.”
“Hotel Palestine is a landmark in Baghdad. – They will never attack this hotel; after all, Americans live here, an Iraqi woman surrounded by her children had assured me. But that is exactly what the Americans have done. In the subject box I write: ‘Missiles against the cameras’.”
“They said they were opening the doors to freedom and they have opened those to chaos instead.”
“The soldiers I meet are possibly naïve, with a strong belief that Americans can do what they want, but they are a more diverse group than I had expected.”
“Iraqis have always craved books. They are our sustenance. Besides love they are all we need, the bookseller says, and recites one of his own poems, about a man who is dying of love but has not the courage to tell his sweetheart.”
I rarely read Introductions, for they tend to give you certain perspectives right from the beginning. Yet, the Introduction to Ali and Nino is worth reading, while remembering that: “Ali and Nino would be well worth reading even if it were not the brilliantly achieved novel that it is. It takes us, as Western readers, into a world in which it is very good for us to be.” To me the novel gives voices to all engulfed in the turmoil of the first world war: Ali, a mohammedan in heart and deeds, Nino, a Georgian aristocrat staying true to herself even in a harem in Persia, an imam who can distinguish between love and senseless sacrifice, true friends who’ll put their friend’s best interest above their own… The novel takes the reader to Azerbaijan, Georgia, Dagestan, and Persia, and we learn about the morals reigning in all these places during those times, while Nino and Ali’s love between a christian and a mohammedan unfolds in spite of everything and everyone.
My favourite passages:
“The Orient’s dry intoxication comes from the desert, where hot wind and hot sand make men drunk, where the world is simple and without problems. The woods are full of questions. Only the desert does not ask, does not give, and does not promise anything. But the fire of the soul comes from the wood. The desert man—I can see him—has but one face, and knows but one truth, and that truth fulfils him. The woodman has many faces. The fanatic comes from the desert, the creator from the woods. Maybe that is the main difference between East and West.’”
“The wise man must not let himself be disturbed by either praise or blame.”
“The magic of this town lies in the mystical bond between its races and peoples”. – about Baku.
‘This wine is pure, for God is in it.” – Georgians about their wine.
Probably one of the most just description of Georgians: “Georgians seem to me like noble deer, strayed amongst the jungle mixtures of the Asiatics. No other Eastern race has this charm, these graceful movements, this fantastic lust for life and healthy enjoyment of leisure.”
It is no news that history is selective and the greatest human stories are left unwritten. This is one of the reasons I am drawn to authors who bring to light, even through fiction, the stories of those we will not find in historical accounts.
Kristin Hannah tells us why she wrote “The Nightingale”: “In war, women’s stories are all too often forgotten or overlooked. Women tend to come home from the battlefield and say nothing and go on with their lives. The Nightingale is a novel about those women and the daring, dangerous choices they made to save their children and their way of life.”
“The Nightingale” – or rosignol in French – takes the reader to the German-occupied France in the second world war. Nightingale is a code name for a Resistance member who rescued downed airmen in France and took them on foot through Pyrenees mountains to the British consulate in Spain. The main characters’ stage is shared by two sisters – Vianne and Isabelle – who were estranged after their mother’s death and reconnected through unbelievable struggles of war. The characters seem to be opposites at the beginning. As the story unfolds, we see them more alike than apart, each brave in her own way.
Alaska. The Great Alone: Alaska – the great alone. Alaska: the great – alone. Alaska – the Great, alone… each reader will find his/her own understanding in this rich novel. I loved the plot, the characters and the style. I was looking forward to pickup my Kindle in the evening to keep reading it.
The story of a young woman married to an ex-Vietnam soldier who brought the hell in his mind to their marriage. Their daughter – thirteen-year-old Leni – is caught in the middle of her parents toxic relationship. In the hope of a fresh start, they move to Alaska. It is never easy to read about domestic violence. In this novel it is amplified by the harsh climate of Alaska, which is unforgiving: “A woman has to be tough as steel up here. You can’t count on anyone to save you and your children. You have to be willing to save yourselves.” Yet Hannah shows it to us from a survivors’ and not from a victim’s perspective. They find true friendship, love and finally – peace.
It is probably my least favorite novel by Shafak so far. It could be the timing and my mind’s needs at this point. It does not diminish one single point its value.
“The Flea Palace” is about emotional lives spent behind the doors of our dwellings, where we think we have privacy. A tragicomic look at a community of people denying themselves any sense of belonging to a community, even if it lives under one roof, the roof of the Bonbon Palace built by a former Russian general for his wife.
My favorite passages:
« Truth is a horizontal line. Be it a hotel corridor, hospital ward, rehabilitation centre or train compartment; all are horizontal. In such places, all your neighbours are lined up next to you on a horizontal plane, for a fleeting moment. You cannot grow roots at these places. Horizontality is the haven of evanescence. I too have been living on a horizontal line for sixty-six days – in the seventh of the ten cells lined up next to each other here. »
« Lies are a vertical line. An apartment building, for instance, erected with flats on top of one another with two layers of cemeteries underneath and seven planes of skies above. Here you can spread roots and grow branches as you please. Verticality Lies are a vertical line. An apartment building, for instance, erected with flats on top of one another with two layers of cemeteries underneath and seven planes of skies above. Here you can spread roots and grow branches as you please. «
Honour. Think about this word. “An action of honoring or paying respect to; act or gesture displaying reverence or esteem; state or condition inspiring respect; nobleness of character or manners; high station or rank; a mark of respect or esteem; a source of glory, a cause of good reputation.” Sounds heavy, obliging, demanding, and in total opposition to “humble”.
What do you honor by killing? Can you get rid of guilt of killing for honour? … this novel raises so many questions from a variety of perspectives. What is “honour” to a sister, a daughter, a loving son, an unforgiving son, a wife, a community of the same faith, a society of many faiths… I loved the story line, and the dual timelines, and every single character. Shafak is a unique writer to me, as she breaths the life into her characters as if she lived each of their stories separately and then jointly. And she does so with grace and humility.
I am very much enjoying books telling stories from the perspective of vulnerable. « The secrets we left behind » tells the story of British nurses left behind during the army’s evacuation from France at the beggining of the WWII. Cate, a brave nurse and Jack, her rescued patient, meet two French sisters who shelter them under the nose of Germans. The story takes time to unfold, so you might need to be patient at the beginning. The author tried to show us that even during unbelivable hurdles humans can fall in love. I found though this part a bit overboard, perhaps because all female characters fell in love one after another.
The background scenery serves well its purpose, so that the mind can picture and place the characters in Normandie at the time of the action.
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