muslim

HADJI MURAT BY LEO TOLSTOY

As I made my way through this short book I told myself that I wasn’t going to review it, that I just didn’t have the mental or emotional energy. This is partly due to having written a lot of reviews this month, and partly due to what has happened recently in the world. I am not asking anyone to take pity on me, of course, but I feel horribly deflated right now, and I was wary of this filtering into my approach to Tolstoy’s work. But then I came towards the end of Hadji Murat, and I read about how “the militiamen gathered over the bodies/like hunters over a dead beast, standing among the bushes in the gunsmoke, gaily chatting and celebrating their victory.” And I heard Marya Dmitrievna’s cry, actually heard it, filling my room: ‘What’s war? You are butchers, and that’s all there is to it.” And I changed my mind. I decided that I had to write something, even though I worry that it will be confusing, ill-thought out, and, at times, completely off the point.

I’m sure I’ll have to take some flak for this, but as far as I am concerned there is no victory in war, there are no heroes. I refuse to celebrate the taking of life, any life. Immediately after the Paris attacks, in fact while they were still ongoing, I started coming across comments such as ‘kill them all, no trial necessary.’ All? Terrorists? Muslims?! You may say I am being dramatic, and yet thousands of people want borders closing, immigrants thrown out. They are, let’s face it, itching for war; they are, I can’t shake the feeling, enjoying this. Don’t get me wrong, what happened in Paris is a tragedy, a disgrace; my thoughts, as they always are, are with the victims, with all innocent, oppressed people around the world, but there is no blood lust in me, there is no hate, only sadness. Yes, those responsible for the Paris attacks are butchers. I just don’t want to be a butcher too.

Daghestan.Ghimeri,_portrait_de_Hadji-Mourad._(1847)

The story of Hadji Murat is, Tolstoy [or his narrator] claims, one that he part saw, part heard, and part imagined. Murat is a Muslim, and a Chechen rebel commander, famous for his exploits. He presents Murat as a well-mannered, generous, friendly man with ‘kindly eyes’, who charms almost everyone he meets. Having made an enemy of another powerful Chechen, Shamil, he has defected over to the Russians, with whom the Chechens are at war. In contrast to Shamil, and the Russian soldiers, leaders, etc, Murat’s goals are honourable. He does not desire glory, riches, awards, or power, rather he wants to avenge himself and his family, and he wants his wife and children to be rescued. The idea appears to be that he has to fight, not that he wants to, but one must not forget, as I sometimes felt the author did, that he is a murderer too. In any case, it is clear that Tolstoy admired the man, for his humility, his independent spirit [he rejects both the Russians and Shamil], but perhaps most of all for his commitment to his religion and religious principles.

So, of course, one feels as though Tolstoy is holding Murat up as a kind of example, but it is equally apparent that he was also using him in order to take shots at his own people.* Indeed, he sees them as Murat sees them. Once the rebel has put himself into Russian hands, he is given access to their homes, and their activities. In one scene he attends the theatre, but, obviously not having enjoyed the experience, leaves early; in another he attends a ball, and again haughtily takes off at the earliest opportunity. This isn’t, as he himself says, about acceptable cultural differences, as he negatively judges these people [as one imagines the author does too] for their frivolous pastimes and revealing dresses. In fact, the most positive thing you could say about any Russian in the novel [aside from Marya Dmitrievna who all but falls in love with Murat, and Avdeev, who I will return to] is that they are, like Butler, affable buffoons. Yet, for the most part, Russians are shown to be gamblers, drinkers; they are idle, lascivious, and dishonourable.

“War presented itself to him as consisting only in his exposing himself to danger and to possible death, thereby gaining rewards and the respect of his comrades here, as well as of his friends in Russia. Strange to say, his imagination never pictured the other aspect of war: the death and wounds of the soldiers, officers, and mountaineers. To retain his poetic conception he even unconsciously avoided looking at the dead and wounded.”

I don’t want to give the impression that Hadji Murat is a bad book, or even that it is overtly mean-spirited, or preachy. It seems that way when you write all this down, but, and I am aware of the contradiction here, it doesn’t really read like that [except in the case of the Tsar who is – rightly or wrongly – torn to shreds]. This is Tolstoy, which means that any complaints one might have about elements of his work are rendered petty by his great genius. Butler, for example, is a nincompoop, but one can’t help but be charmed by him regardless. It always strikes me, when I read him, that Tolstoy often started out with rather pompous, unpleasant ideas, and yet could never quite see them through, that his love of humanity always took over or compromised his initial vision. And so we get someone like Avdeev, the soldier who agreed to go to war in his brother’s place, a man who, at home, was hardworking, and who feels, in his current predicament, ‘heartsick.’ He is the one Russian soldier in the novel with a conscience, who feels as though this isn’t a right or good life. He, predictably, is killed in battle, just as his mother is sending him a touching, emotional letter, with a Ruble enclosed. Hadji Murat is full of wonderful minor portraits like this, and memorable scenes, such as the servant Vavilo, or the pipe smoking in the forest, or Murat’s dreams merging with the sounds of the jackals….or the head. My God, the head. That will stay with me for years. And, finally, there is Marya Dmitrievna’s cry, a cry not for one man, not just for Murat, but for all men who have fallen, and continue to fall, in these senseless power games.

*it is worth noting that Tolstoy was, of course, writing with the Russian public in mind, one that, you’d assume, wasn’t entirely positively disposed towards Chechens. If you bear that in mind, then Hadji Murat might be interpreted as a call for compassion, or tolerance, towards those you perceive as your enemies, or simply those who are different from you. There is always a temptation to demonise other cultures – you might think they look weird, smell weird, eat weird, that their customs are barbaric, that they are prone to violence, etc. – without truly understanding them, or even taking account of what is under your own nose i.e. your own culture or practices, which may be just as baffling or appalling to the people you criticise. Therefore, that the author shows Murat – the other – to be caring, and considerate, and so on, was, and still is, an important message. My one issue with this would be that Tolstoy takes it too far, so that he comes across as a prince among swine.

PALACE WALK [THE CAIRO TRILOGY PT. 1] BY NAGUIB MAHFOUZ

I do wonder sometimes why certain people bother to read foreign literature, as they seem intolerant of, or are at least irritated by, cultural differences. I was browsing some reviews of a Japanese novel the other day and I came across a couple which suggested that the book in question, and Japanese literature as a whole, is troubling, and ultimately unenjoyable, because the female characters are infantilised. Well, gee, really? First of all, I don’t agree; I think that Japanese literature of a certain age does often feature quiet, submissive female characters, but I’m not entirely sure how that equates to child-like. Nor do I believe that submissive women is specifically a Japanese issue [there are a shit-tonne in English literature, for example. Persuasion anyone?]. Furthermore, there are strong, active female characters in many Japanese novels, like Taeko in The Makioka Sisters. Thirdly, and more pertinently in terms of the book under review here, why are submissive female characters a problem? Do submissive women not exist? Perhaps Japanese women are or were at one time largely submissive, and these Japanese books are merely a reflection of their society. I mean, I dunno about you, but part of the reason I read, part of my enjoyment, is to learn about, to be immersed in, other cultures, rather than to [negatively] judge them against my own.

For me, some people bring a weird form of cultural arrogance to their reading; and this arrogance appears to result in a short-sighted, lazy kind of relationship with the texts in question. Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk focuses on a family which is dominated by its patriarch. The wife [Amina] is not allowed outdoors, the daughters are married off without having much of a say in the matter etc. Cue: lots of hand-wringing and overly PC criticism. Yet the people who criticise the work as sexist completely miss the point. Mahfouz clearly intended this family to show Egyptian, and Muslim, society at its most strict, or old-fashioned; it is a family out of step with the times. This is made abundantly clear on numerous occasions if you bother to pay attention. While the central family are ruled by a tyrant, other families, other patriarchs, are far more relaxed; indeed, many characters comment on al-Sayyid Ahmad’s unyielding behaviour; they even chide him for it. Not only that, but he is shown to be a man who is losing his grip on his family; his daughters and sons and, most shockingly for him, his wife all rebel against his iron rule at certain pivotal stages of the narrative. The new relationships formed by his daughters with their husbands show they have, in one case, more freedom and, in the other, absolute control. I really cannot fathom what some readers find to get upset about.

Palace Walk is only the first part of what is commonly known as The Cairo Trilogy. It is a domestic drama, with, as stated, an overriding theme of change. Like the aforementioned The Makioka Sisters, we are introduced to a society evolving, one on the cusp of a new identity, or way of living; some characters are happy or at least willing to go with the flow, and yet one is categorically not. I find this kind of thing fascinating; it’s like watching a dodo trying to drive a car. However, change is not Mahfouz’s only concern; he has a lot of interesting things to say about family dynamics, about hypocrisy, and politics and love. On hypocrisy: I think one of the things that so enrages some readers is that while al-Sayyid Ahmad demands exemplary behaviour, and compliance, from his wife and children, he seeks to please himself, is himself a boozer and a womaniser. I would again cite cultural, not to mention temporal, differences here as a reason not to criticise the work; and I would also point people to the fact, and it is mentioned in the text, that al-Sayyid Ahmad would be well within his rights to actually take more than one wife, and yet he doesn’t, believing, admirably, that one wife, one set of children, creates a better, more stable environment for his family.

Indeed, it would be a gross misrepresentation of the work to give the impression that the characters are all one-dimensional, that al-Sayyid Ahmad is merely the oppressor, and his wife and daughters the abused and oppressed. The length and the relatively slow pace of the novel actually allows Mahfouz to fully develop his characters, in a way that one doesn’t find in contemporary literature. al-Sayyid Ahmed is thrillingly complex, thrillingly human; so, while he has his ways, of course, it is clear that he loves his family, that he cares deeply about them. He does, however, also care about his image, about his reputation. He is inconsistent, yes, but so am I, so are most people. His wife, too, obviously loves her husband and, generally speaking, is happy to serve him. I guess some people might say that it is wrong for Mahfouz, as a man, to show a woman who is happy to serve her husband, but, again, I think they would misunderstand the book; at no point does the author judge any of his characters or ask you to judge them; this lack of judgement is, actually, one of its most pleasing features.

Yet my favourite aspect of the novel is how close Mahfouz allows you to get to his characters. Palace Walk is an engagingly, charmingly intimate portrayal of an average Muslim family. We are given access to their most mundane actions or rituals, such as how each member of the family eats their breakfast, how make-up is applied; we read about their good-natured piss-taking of each other, their petty squabbles, their most basic hopes and fears. The kind of intimate access you have to them ultimately makes you [or me, at least] care about them; it, in fact, creates a kind of relationship between you and the family, so that you almost feel part of it. Indeed, when Amina hurts herself late in the novel I found myself wishing she would get better. This is in contrast to my usual experiences where I generally hope for nothing but disaster to befall the people I’m reading about [it’s just more exciting, y’know].

One last thing: Mahfouz did, of course, win the Nobel Prize [it says so on the cover of the book, just in case you were in any doubt]. One would anticipate on that basis that his prose would be top drawer. However, while his novel is a fine achievement, and there are some aspects of his writing that are impressive, on the whole it didn’t give me a raging hard-on. I don’t speak or read Arabic, but apparently it is very difficult to translate into English. So, I’m inclined to believe, or am at least prepared to believe, that this is a translation issue rather than a true reflection of Mahfouz’s ability as a prose stylist.