Tag Archives: Holland

The House of the Mosque (2005) – Kader ABDOLAH

I saw Kader Abdollah at the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year, talking about multiculturalism in Europe, and what it means to be an immigrant writer. He was hands down the most interesting person on the panel, with his hilarious retellings of his initial impressions of the Netherlands less than complimentary. Having escaped Iran, he now writes in Dutch, about Iran, and The House of the Mosque is his most successful novel, though it has only recently been translated into English.

The imam of the mosque in Senejan has died, and a new one must be found. It is up to Aqa Jaan, the head of the family who live in the house of the mosque, to find another one while his nephew grows up. But Iran is changing – it is the 1960s, and revolution is in the air. And so, as the country is plunged into political turmoil, the finding of a new imam becomes the least of Aga Djan’s problems.

Just as with any other part of the world in the 20th century, Abdolah shows us how Senejan reacts to the rapidly changing world around it. Once a proud carpet making town, complete with a bazaar the envy of all those around, things begin to change. Television, for example, takes focus. Indeed, we open with the landing on the Moon – surreptitiously watched by three men crowded in a small room. The new imam Aqa Jaan eventually finds is less than ideal, though, as a young man with big ideas, Khalkhal stirs up trouble in Senejan, leading something of a mini revolution against the West sympathising central government in the big city. He eventually leaves, though the damage he causes means Senejan will never be the same again.

Alas, this novel did nothing for my theory that Islam is a deeply misogynistic religion (in its defence, I tend to think that about the other two ‘Big Three’ religions, anyway), though Abdolah works with that, and presents us with some surprisingly well written female characters. For sheer adorableness, you can’t go past the two grandmas, who fulfil a maid-like role in the house of the mosque. They have spent their lives in service to the mosque, and their dream is simply to go to Mecca. They are at once comedic relief, and also a perfect portrait of religious devotion. But I also like the other women – Sediq, for example, who is the poster child for living through an abusive relationship, as well as Zinat, who goes on a journey that may well qualify her for the title of World’s Most Terrifying Superbitch.

There is an element of poetry, too, in this novel, which no doubt stems from the fact that Abdolah originally wanted to be a writer of epic Persian poetry. And rather than just working in a hobby, unrelated and unconnected from events, this poetry has a point. Because it is through poetry that these people are able to express their true feelings – about love, about sex, about each other, and about the world. It’s a nice touch, and an important reminder that the Islamic tradition is at least as intelligent a culture as the Christian one on which Western democracy is based.

About half way through the novel, there is a discernable shift. We move away from the small town dealings of one mosque, and pick up the story of the revolution on a far grander scale. Using the characters he introduced in the first half, Abdolah shows us the series of events that led to Khomeini’s rise, and how this affects the daily lives of those people. Somewhat coincidentally, many of the main characters now have important parts to play in the Khomeini regime – Khalkhlal makes a stunning return, and we discover than any ill feelings we may have had towards him at the beginning of the novel are completely justified. Nosrat, a man who just wants to make art, turns out to have a surprisingly close relationship with the Ayatollah. And Aqa Jaan realises that he is actually an old man, whose power and influence over the bazaar no longer exists, because the bazaar no longer exists.

The novel closes with a letter from a man who has escaped the persecution of the regime, and moved to Holland. This is, no doubt, Abdolah breaking the fourth wall, and writing a letter to his own family, still in Iran. It’s touching, and provides a reminder that these are real events, and Abdolah did indeed escape for fear of his life.

Obviously, with the recent uprisings throughout the Arab world, this book has perhaps more resonance than usual. The story Abdolah tells us – the installation of the ultra-conservative Khomeini government – is in many ways deeply ironic, and deeply sad. Ironic, because the left-wing supporters of Khomeini thought they were doing the right thing by kicking out the previous pro-West government, only to have their support be obliterated by religious conservatives, and sad, because the lengths Abdolah goes to highlight the way these world famous events affect one small village are beautifully realised.

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) – David MITCHELL

I love David Mitchell. I’ve been waiting for this book since 2006, when Black Swan Green was released. What makes this novel even more exciting is the fact that it’s all about Japan – the country in which I’m currently living. So basically, the combination of probably my most favourite author of modern times, and the history of Japan, has made me pretty anxious to read The Thousand Autumns of Jaco de Zoet.

When Jacob de Zoet arrives on Dejima, he is greeted with a sight like no other he has ever experienced. In this strange world where Japan meets the West, Jacob is so far out of his depth he doesn’t know what to do. But then he meets Orito, a young Japanese woman studying under the local Dutch doctor. He becomes instantly infatuated with her, but other forces are at work, conspiring against him.

Structurally, we are given three stories to follow – in sequence, they are Jacob’s arrival on Dejima, Orito’s time in an abbey, and the English ship coming to take Dejima. While points of view shift wildly, along with time, Mitchell has written a cohesive, singular narrative that manages to, at the same time, investigate both Japan, and the people who are fascinated with Japan. In fact, this is not really a novel about Japan. More than anything, this is a novel about Dejima – the island the Dutch are forced to live on in the bay of Nagasaki. Something like a prototypical Big Brother house, there are a wide variety of people living in tiny, unbearable conditions; cut off from their outside world, no news from friend or family, bar a ship that arrives in bay once every three years. It is no surprise, then, that the amount of infighting or bickering between the Dutch inhabitants overshadows a lot of what is going on in Japan proper.

So while this is a novel set on the cusp of change in an entire world region, at the same time, this is not a concern of any of the characters. Granted, no one really saw Matthew Perry coming, but by focusing on normal people, Mitchell doesn’t focus on the “big” questions of the time. Jacob de Zoet, for example, is a deeply Christian man, and yet while living in Dejima, he is not allowed to practice his faith, on pain of death. Jacob’s translator, Uzaemon, is himself trapped between two worlds – the ability to speak a foreign language is a rare enough occurence in itself,  but the fact that he is in love with a  woman who is not his wife makes it all the more difficult to be heard. Then there are the other Dutch citizens of Dejima – all more worried about their own money making schemes and ideas to care about the political machinations of the Japanese forces.

There are, of course, Japanese characters throughout the novel that also take centre stage. Most importantly, perhaps, is Orito Aibagawa, a midwife who is allowed to study on Dejima under the Dutch doctor, and with whom Jacob falls desperately in love with. As with many white men falling in love with Japanese women, though, this doesn’t seem to be based on any kind of mental or psychological contact, but rather with the fact that he finds her so exotic, he must have her. In this respect, I think Mitchell has missed a trick. The story of the white man falling for the private, mysterious, passive Asian woman surely has been told so many times now, we could have had something else here?

Orito herself, though, becomes our main focus for the middle third of the novel, so in many respects, this is forgiven. Her story is perhaps the most terrifying of them all. Her midwifery skills make her a valuable asset in the eyes of a creepy monk, who is doing weird things to women on a mountain. I won’t spoil it for you, but this tangential story is actually quite engaging, even though it doesn’t really have any bearing on the main plot at all. But from it, we see a woman who is deeply compassionate, a woman willing to stand up for what she believes, yet at the same time, is willing to sacrifice her own safety for the common good. In this respect, perhaps, she is too perfect, but as with many of the Japanese characters here, she is brought down to size whenever she sets foot on Dejima.

As with any good story, this is a novel about people. People who live in a highly claustrophobic, highly unnatural set of circumstances, and tend towards the overreaction side of human behaviour. For those of us who study Japan, or even anyone with an interest in Japan, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet will be a must-read. And for those who don’t, go read it anyway. It’s a David Mitchell novel – something that should be announced with trumpets, fanfare, and a giant parade.

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Amsterdam (1998) – Ian McEWAN

I read this weeks ago! This is, I think, the first time I’ve reviewed a book so long after the fact. I blame the fact that uni has stared again (only to end this week – yay!), and so I haven’t had time to scratch myself. So if this review seems a little off, I apologise in advance.

When Molly Lane dies, her friends come to pay their respects. In particular, two old friends meet again – Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday. Clive is a famous composer, having been commissioned to write the symphony for the next millennium. Vernon is the editor of a newspaper struggling to survive. As these two lives begin to once again intertwine, a pact they make will have disastrous consequences.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Ian McEwan – clearly, I’ve never reviewed him here. But I do like him a lot. There seems to the this stigma surrounding his work because he manages to straddle that line between populism and literature so very well – I would totally class his stuff as literature, but it has a somewhat broader appeal than most. There seems to be some ‘conventional wisdom’ that Amsterdam shouldn’t have won the Booker, but he got it because he was short-changed with Enduring Love. I don’t know about that, though. This is pretty good.

What I like most about McEwan’s work is the fact that it is just so very English. Well, a very specific type of English, to be fair – the middle-aged, upper-middle-class white man. But he just does it so well. These two men – Clive and Vernon – are so caught up in their own problems, they cannot see anything else. And when they realise that a woman they both dated has died, they also realise just how short their lives are. And so, the wheels begin to turn. Their legacy becomes of vital importance – who will remember these two men after they have died? What should they do to ensure their names live on?

The lengths they go to in order to ensure this become so great, you cannot quite believe that they are actually happening. Clive is willing to let a woman be attacked and raped just to ensure his muse isn’t interrupted, while Vernon is happy to destroy another man’s career – and probably family – to ensure he is remembered. And yet, this backfires so spectacularly on both of them. Both of them become so self-destructive, the ending seems almost like high farce.

Indeed, this is a very funny novel. McEwan keeps it light – and short – but I do think it works to the novel’s advantage. There is something very darkly funny about watching these two self-important, insignificant men run around trying desperately to make themselves relevant. And (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you), the ending is absolutely perfect. There is no other way this book could have ended, and McEwan times it perfectly. There could have been a tendency to drag had he let their machinations play our terribly much longer, but the final scenes are so perfectly written and timed, I had to laugh. It’s pretty epic.

Amsterdam is an intelligent novel – and I think people tend to forget that sometimes. Partially because it’s surrounded by Enduring Love and Atonement in McEwan’s oeuvre, and the fact that it’s McEwan at all. There’s quite a lot at work here, and if you like your characters white, middle-aged, middle-class, with just a hint of insanity, then this just might be for you.

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Netherland (2008) – Joseph O’NEILL

This novel has been, in certain circles, at least, making waves as the favourite to win the Booker this year. While it was longlisted, it didn’t even make the shortlist in the end. What, then, was the hype all about? Why was this the post-Septermber 11 novel we’d all been waiting for? Why is this the ‘great American novel’, when it was written by an Irishman? So many questions…

When Hans van den Broek, a Dutchman living in England, receives a call from American police, he is informed that a friend of his Chuck Ramkissoon, has been found dead in a river. For Hans, this brings back memories of the few years he spent in New York City with his wife and young child in the early 2000s, when everything changed. Apart from his fractured marriage, he also begins to remember Chuck – a man who truly believed that cricket was, and could be again, the national sport of America.

This book is very clearly delineated into three sections. The first deals with the collapse of Hans’ marriage, the second with his growing friendship with Chuck, and the last with his eventual return to England. The first section is amazing – the prose is beautiful, and there are some amazing character and plot moments. Hans’ movement into NYC, and his young marriage, which are presented as flashbacks, are nicely juxtaposed with his current life in a hotel, living with some of the most fantastic characters ever written. I particularly like the Turkish angel – a Turkish man who dresses as an angel, and haunts the corridors of the hotel. While the other two sections of the book are also pretty good, it does seem to peak very early with this first section.

For me, as soon as I hit the second section, it was as though something had changed completely, even though the plot itself didn’t. Which is a shame, and I can’t quite place my finger on what it is that changes, or why I didn’t like it as much, but there you go. Maybe it’s because I hate cricket, and it’s not until the second section that it begins to become a focus. Not that this is a sporting novel – on the contrary, cricket becomes a way for all of these immigrants to come together and celebrate being different, which for Hans is particularly unique, considering he is the only white man on the cricket team. I suppose people who look like they should fit in are perhaps treated differently, and as such, have a very different experience in regards to what it means to be an outsider. For Hans, though, he always seems to have been an outsider – even in his own marriage. He is the strong but silent type, that keeps everything bottled up, and is content to plod along at life. This, of course, turns out to be the reason his marriage falls apart so quickly.

What I think is done really well is the character of Rachel. While I agree with her politics, she does seem to embody everything that was wrong about the reactions of people to the attacks of September 11. Granted, her early lingering fear is thoroughly and understandably justifiable, especially considering she is a new mum, but the fervour with which she tries to attack Hans for not having an opinion on the whole thing, when the American (or Bush administration, at least) reaction is clearly ‘wrong’, is so great that her refusal to see Hans’ reaction as normal breaks their marriage. Similarly, though, Hans’ inability to feel anything, to tell Rachel what he is thinking is nicely done. It is interesting that Hans then moves to a close male relationship – that with Chuck – to try and deal with this. In times of crisis, men come together and play sport to forget both their own troubles, and the troubles of the world, this book seems to be saying. Which is pretty true, I suppose – this stereotypically masculine thing of either ignoring the problem completely, or keeping it inside and refusing to discuss it.

Netherland is good, but it’s not mind-bogglingly great. It does, however, show signs of greatness – particularly that first section. And while this is certainly touted as a post-September 11 novel, and while the attacks are a catalyst for many of the things that take place, this is, in the end, a book about relationships, about masculinity and about marriage. And about cricket.

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Certainty (2007) – Madeleine THIEN

I needed a break from conservative satirists, and this book was on the sale table at work. Mmm, cheap books that didn’t sell the first time we had them. You’d think that would be an incentive for people not read them, and yet, we still sell a whole load of cheap old stock.

The death of a loved one is usually a time to reflect on your time with them, and their life. For the family of Gail Lim, however, it is a time to reflect upon other losses, about countries far away from the chilly winters of Canada, and the atrocities of the Second World War. Each member of the family has a story to tell, and the death of their daughter, of their partner, has triggered this recollection.

I kind of like these stories within a story novels. Some of them work really well – probably why I like David Mitchell so much. But this one kind of felt a bit weak. Each of the stories were good by themselves, but they didn’t really add up to anything very substantive. Granted, I now know a lot more about Indonesian and Dutch relations, but that’s about it. Many other authors have talked about the Japanese occupation of South-East Asia and, to be honest, done it better. I kept thinking of Tan Twan Eng’s excellent debut, The Gift of Rain, while I was reading the parts set in Asia, and thinking how much better it was. Which is not a good sign. The descriptions just seem a bit weak. I think that if you’re going to write a novel like this, that spans a lot of ground, you really need a stronger prose style to support everything that’s going. Not that the style isn’t good – I really enjoyed reading all the turns of phrase and the such – but I still think that is doesn’t quite suit what this book tries to do.

The characters themselves are also nothing to write home about. Each one is there, and you kind of know what they’re about, but the story lets you fill in the blanks, and you have to assume a lot of what is going on in the present day, which is fine, I suppose. If you like that kind of thing. Again, it’s this kind of ‘flowery’ prose that drags down the concept and characters.

The only other complaint I have to make is that I’m not sure how well researched the bits in Australia are. For a start, it does not snow in Melbourne on a regular basis, and if you live in the centre of the city, you are unlikely to find a small herd of kangaroos jumping majestically across the landscape. Just throwing it out there.

Ultimately, this book is ok. And that’s about it. It didn’t blow me away, and I didn’t hate reading it. I still think the big thing is the prose – it’s good, but it really doesn’t suit what Thien is trying to do in this novel. It needs to be longer, bolder, brasher. Instead, it’s a little bit weak and understated, but not in a good way. And she needs to learn what Australia is really like.

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