Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Captain And The Enemy by Graham Greene

The Captain And The Enemy is one of Graham Greene’s late works. Like most of his novels, it is quite short, deceptively intense and, despite what might appear to be a quite literal plot, highly enigmatic.

Then captain of the title is a man we hardly get to know. His name might be Smith, or Baxter, or even anything he might have noticed in passing that morning. His title might be captain, or colonel, or sergeant, or even plain mister. Doubtless he had been Lord at some point.

He can become anyone he wants, but at heart he’s a pirate, sailing alone through life in search of elusive treasure. One day he was whiling time away with an acquaintance, a man always called The Devil, playing backgammon (or was it chess?). The stakes rose and The Devil wagered his son. The colonel won.

The book opens with the colonel claiming ownership of Victor Baxter, then a boy at a boarding school. The colonel abducts the boy. They both agree that Victor is a naff name and from then on the boy is called Jim.

At home, if home it be, is Lisa, the woman to whom the captain continues to devote his life, even if the norm is devotion from afar. Lisa gets irregular cash or cheques through the post to cover the housekeeping and never questions the source.

The Captain, of course, never offers anything more. Jim, as the lad Victor has become, becomes part of the insoluble equation. He keeps a journal for some reason and, discovering it years later, he embarks upon an edit. And then Jim is grown up and in search of the man he now calls his father.

He left Lisa and the household years before in search of fortune. Jim tracks him down to Panama and discovers a strange life packed with intrigue. When they meet again, Jim finds a changed man, someone he hardly recognises. Jim’s response is to lie to him. The Colonel is eventually revealed as a man with principles, principles worth personal risk. At least that’s what he says today, and who ever knows about tomorrow?

And so we are left with memories of people who live towards the edge of even their own lives. They adopt identities bestowed by circumstance and change apparently at will. Who cares about contradiction? I mean really cares?

The Enchantress Of Florence by Salman Rushdie

The Enchantress Of Florence by Salman Rushdie is a thoroughly entertaining read. It’s a super-real experience, so vivid and sharp that the focus starts to blur even imagined distinction between the real, the unreal and the surreal. And when everything becomes clear, the process starts again.

We are transported to the sixteenth century and the court of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar the Great, who has many concerns. Akbar, indeed, has all the concerns you would expect any self-respecting emperor might have. He agonises, for instance, over being “I” or “We”. Usually, of course, as befits his status, he is “We”. He has grown up as “We”, assumed himself to be “We” and continues to recognise himself as “We”. But recently he has tried “I” and found it lies strangely on the tongue and might even have changed his reflection in the mirror.

On top of this, he worries about his succession, the indolence and ambition of his offspring, the comfort of his harem, the performance of his armies, the future of his fortunes. But Akbar is also the ruler of a vivid imagination. His favourite queen, the one who adds grace to his harem, the one whose every step must be upon polished tiles, exists only in his imagination. He spends more time with her than with any other of his wives, and she probably consumes more of the palace budget than anyone, so perfectly does Akbar desire to provide for her insatiable needs.

So what might Akbar the Great make of a fair-haired young man in a multi-coloured coat who arrives with a story to tell, a claim to make and tricks of the hand that can be explained as illusions? His name is Uccello, bird, when we meet him aboard ship. Then he is Vespucci, a relative of he who had in the recent past sailed to and named the real new world that Columbus had both missed and misinterpreted. 

And later he transforms into Mogor dell' Amore, the mughal of love, or perhaps with a little imagination, the Mughal’s love-child. And more than that, he arrives bearing a letter from the Queen of England, herself a virgin in her own legend. Uccello Mogor Vespucci, whoever he might be, also has a claim. He is a direct descendent of the Mogul royal line by virtue of an almost forgotten princess, Qara Köz, who as an infant was abducted, traded, swapped, travelled, perhaps trammelled until she emerged in Florence as a young woman of enchanting, perhaps bewitching beauty.

Mogor Vespucci Uccello related how he and her apparently permanent, inseparable assistant, her Mirror, captivated the interest of Medici Florence. Suitors queued at the door, including Argalia, if indeed that be his name, a soldier of fortune. The abandoned princess is then adopted by European high society and learns to live by its rules. She has liaisons whose confusion is only doubled by the constant proximity of the Mirror, and offspring springs outward. Now for an emperor who already has the facility of imagining his favourite wife, Vespucci Uccello Mogor’s story fires the mind, re-ignites memory and raises possibility.

He dreams dreams, interprets them, re-interprets what he doesn’t like and then seeks them in reality, only to find them. A conjoined history that spans Asia and Europe unfolds and he, alongside the reader, sees the familiar in a new, conflicting light. But in the end, who is telling stories? Are the stories true? And, if we can imagine, who might judge them to be false? Is this trickery? Or is it claim? The Enchantress Of Florence is an enchanting read. It is provocative, humorous and in places iconoclastic. Fiction and fact become blurred and, even in reality, we can hardly distinguish between them. We create stories to enhance our experience and sometimes we believe them. Sometimes we also deign to believe what is real, but often we cannot agree on a definition of the label. It’s a magical experience, a conjuror’s achievement.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Museum Of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

The Museum Of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk presents what might appear to be a daunting challenge. It runs to more than 500 pages and a flick through the text reveals scant use of dialogue. It all looks very dense. There is also the added challenge of knowing that the novel is set in an unfamiliar cultural landscape, underpinned by assumptions we may not share, assumptions that we may not even recognise.

But no reader need be daunted. I read it – and even re-read some sections – in less than two days. Rarely have I been drawn by a writer inside a character in the way that Orhan Pamuk invited me to become Kemal Bey. The book is a perfect example of a work that tells you nothing, but takes you all the way there.

Kemal is a rich young man at the start of the book’s recollected but largely linear story. It is 1975. Kemal has returned from business school in the USA and has taken up a perhaps assured position in Satsat, literally Sell-Sell, his family’s distribution and export company. It’s a successful company, making money hand over fist, and provides its owners with both status and wealth. Kemal is part of Istanbul’s, even Turkey’s elite, a rich man even among the rich. He can have what he wants. His life is on a flat track in the fast lane from the start. He is close to engagement and marriage to Sibel, a beautiful woman he loves.

And then one day Kemal visits a shop to buy his girlfriend a present. He recognises the girl who serves him as the daughter of a distant relation, a woman he used to call Aunt Nesibe. There was no direct blood tie, perhaps, but ties with this poorer branch of the family were stronger when Kemal was young.

Hence he remembers the shop girl who serves him as Füsun, Aunt Nesibe’s daughter. She is just 18, has bleached hair in the modern style and promises an imminent and full bloom of womanhood. Kemal is transfixed and from that moment on his life is changed. The Museum Of Innocence – at least in part – is a novel about obsession. Kemal wants to possess, to own every aspect of Füsun. He yearns for her body – that might be taken for granted – but he also wants to absorb her, in some ways to become part of her. 

For him she is a Madonna, a sex object, a future wife, an analyst, a support and a superstar all in one slight, beautiful frame. He changes every aspect of his life so that it fits the shape she projects merely so that he can metaphorically and literally wrap himself around her. In one of their encounters, she loses a monogrammed earring. Kemal finds it, but doesn’t return it. And so this earring becomes the first of many things associated with Füsun that Kemal collects. Eventually these thousands of artefacts become the exhibits in his museum dedicated to her, Kemal’s museum of innocence.

But Orham Pamuk’s writing is never merely one-layered. In The Museum of Innocence he takes us on a tour of Istanbul’s high society and culture. We experience – not just observe – clashes of culture, tradition versus modernity, family versus individuality, responsibility versus interest. Events that made Turkish history of the period affect everyone’s lives. Political and economic change go hand in hand, though sometimes the hands are fists. We meet Zaim, for instance, whose company makes Meltem, Turkey’s favourite domestically-made soft drink.

But as the years pass, can his brand compete with Coke and Pepsi? And if so, what tactic should it employ to find its market? Should it use Western advertising methods? Kemal also meets Feridun, a budding film director who, via various mechanisms eventually persuades Kemal to finance a film company as a joint venture. Lemon Film’s first offering is hammered by the urban critics, but poor communities throughout Anatolia can identify with its traditional message and so it becomes a capitalist hit. Kemal has success is almost every aspect of his life but not, it seems, in love, a subject he confines to his museum. He becomes, incidentally, a compulsive museum visitor!

A review of The Museum Of Innocence cannot begin to offer a flavour of the entire book. Its canvas is too broad, its achievement too great, its success too complete. Obsession is the key word, however, and Orhan Pamuk manages to draw the willing reader into Kemal’s psyche, so that his tunnel vision becomes an obsession for the reader. We see his world through his eyes, and thus feel what he feels. Perhaps we even empathise. Looking back, The Museum Of Innocence, like life itself, is not such a long journey after all.