“L’Insoumise de Gaza” by Asmaa Alghoul & Sélim Nassib: “When there’s no choice but to rebel”

L'Insoumise de Gaza (Documents, Actualités, Société) (French Edition) by [Nassib, Sélim, Alghoul, Asmaa]

The eldest of nine, Asmaa Alghoul grew up in the Gaza refugee camp of Rafah where her grandparents had fled after their land was taken by the Israelis. I found it hard to “place” her family; although, as a refugee, she received handouts at school, her father was clearly educated, at times holding down a professional post abroad and teaching at a Gaza university, while her uncles were much more fundamentally religious, supporters of Hamas, some holding quite senior posts. Encouraged to ask questions by her relatively broad-minded father but chastised by the uncles for her lack of piety, by her mother for not doing her homework and her teacher for misbehaving at school, a combination of these factors must have engendered her unusually stubborn, resilient and persistent stance, a prerequisite for a female journalist in the tough, chauvinist environment of the Gaza strip.
Having left an Islamic university because it was too strict, and a less academic, more secular one when her course folded through lack of students, Asmaa quickly found work writing for a newspaper about the plight of Gaza and Palestinian women’s rights, going on to win a succession of international prizes for the courage and quality of her work.

She demonstrates in quite an extreme form the dilemma of the woman who wants to combine marriage and motherhood with a career which involves great commitment flexibility, even danger in the sense of risking arrest and torture for attending a demonstration, or death when trying to cover an Israeli attack. She tends to let her “heart rule her head” in choosing husbands, only to find them to be not as open-minded as she thought. Perhaps she is a little blinkered when it comes to admitting her own fault in the failure of a relationship. She certainly seems to have suffered post-natal depression after the birth of her son, both her children being largely brought up by her own mother, it seems.

She gives a vivid impression of life in the Gaza strip, surprising me at first with her “plague on all your houses” attitude to the various opposing groups who confine the inhabitants in a vice. As a child she refused a sweet from a well-meaning Israeli soldier, “because it contained poison”. Some of her earliest memories were of Israeli soldiers attacking with stones and teargas the house of her extended family, beating her uncles for their connections with Hamas. Years later she was to tell a Jewish American lecturer at Columbia that he was the first Israeli to teach her something.

Yet she also condemns the corruption of Fatah and the Palestinian Organisation, claiming that they pocketed large sums sent by naïve European and American groups to help the Palestinians. One of their number, she claims, even supplied the concrete to build the infamous wall protecting Israel.

Dispelling my belief that Hamas was at least democratically elected to represent Gaza, she describes how they manipulated the system to get enough votes to win. She also describes their repressive fanaticism, driven by control freakery rather than based on any doctrine, in which a woman is continually harassed and manhandled for failing to cover her hair completely with a headscarf, arrested for sitting on the beach fully clad, but with her clothing moulded to her body after bathing in the sea, or tortured for attending a demonstration.

As is no doubt vital for one’s sanity and endurance, there is much humour in the book, as when she manages to flout the taboo on cycling, using the company of some European wars waged by the Israelis in the early C21, culminating in the broken ceasefire of 2014 in which several members of her family were killed, mostly innocent civilians. She writes vividly of her fear of being killed, the sudden and arbitrary nature of death: of her newborn twin nephews, one died and the other survives, but to be haunted by this fact for the rest of his life. Then there is the strange depression which comes in the aftermath of bombardment when all tension is abruptly removed and one can relax. Although she appreciates that all wars must end in peace between enemies, so sees the futility of retaliation, she describes the urge to do so “because our blood is not as cheap as you think”.

No one escapes her fearless, pithy, no-holds-barred analysis, so it is obvious why she has attracted such fierce attacks in return. “What a region!” she writes, in which Islamic State kills people indiscriminately in the name of a perverted interpretation of Islam, whereas Israel does so in the name of its Promised Land. She ends this book on a positive, defiant note but the prospect seems bleak in reality.

Some prior knowledge is needed to appreciate this book fully, although I suppose it could equally well inspire a reader to go away and gen themselves up on an injustice which is allowed to persist through widespread indifference compounded by ignorance.

“The Juliet Stories” by Carrie Snyder – torn between viewpoints

The Juliet Stories

Although described by reviewers as a series of short stories, the first part of this book, set in Nicaragua, reads to me like a novel in its vivid portrayal of an observant, imaginative girl, perhaps destined to be a writer, trying to make sense of an alien world, her perceptions inevitably limited through being only ten years old.

Her idealistic perhaps unconsciously selfish father has uprooted his family from Indiana to Managua in the 1980s, to enable him to work as a peace activist for “Roots of Justice”, dedicated to campaign against the Contra terrorists, supported by President Reagan, who are attacking the recently established left-wing government. Juliet’s beautiful mother Gloria, her continual smoking no doubt a symbol of her stress, apparently only really happy when lost in singing to her own guitar accompaniment, generally seems sharp-tongued and burdened by childcare, most of her limited store of love and attention being being devoted to her infant son Emmanuel.

Meanwhile tomboy Juliet roams with increasing confidence, scrapping and bickering with her brother Keith who seems to adapt more easily to the situation, picking up Spanish quickly and performing better when the pair eventually get sent to school. Although they do not seem close, they share a bond based on their unusual common experience. With the typical irresponsibility of childhood, the two manage to leave Emmanuel behind at a neighbouring house where they have been offered drinks, but he is brought back to them by a group of local girls who handle him much better than Juliet – unlike her, they are only a few years off falling pregnant and becoming mothers.

A good deal of humour stems from Juliet’s perspective as a child: communism is “bad” back home but the Nicaraguan brand is “good” because it involves “sharing”. She learns about poverty and inequality without understanding it: observing how their maid Bianca steals “diapers” and Gloria’s red blouse when she whisks them away to be washed, but how she lives in a slum partly destroyed by recent fighting, and also makes them chicken soup when they fall ill in their father’s absence, admittedly pocketing some of the money taken to buy them food.

Juliet also notices without understanding how her father may be flirting with a young volunteer, overtly infatuated with him while, probably depressed, Gloria falls easy prey to the attentions of a charming married expatriate with a wandering eye.

This evocative and original section of the book, which completely engrossed me, comes to an end when a combination of Keith’s severe illness and the dangerous escalation of Contra activity drive Gloria to insist on returning to the States. The second part appears to be Juliet’s own diary, written with changing points of view and styles as she witnesses her parents’ marriage fall apart and has her own offspring and infidelities. I have struggled to understand why I so quickly lost interest and failed to engage with this change of tack. Perhaps it is because it is too disjointed, characters are introduced abruptly without being developed, points are either too unclear, or explained rather than being left for us to sense.

Oddly, a book reminiscent of “The Poisonwood Bible” has the same flaw to a stronger degree for “western” readers, namely a brilliant, absorbing first part set in a strikingly “different” developing country, with a less successful second part dealing with the more familiar developed world.

“Mourir sur Seine” – a tall ship tale

Mourir sur Seine: Best-seller ebook (ROMAN) (French Edition) by [Bussi, Michel]

This is the third novel by Michel Bussi which I have read partly as a relatively painless way of practising my French, but also because I was so impressed by the originality and ingenuity of “Nymphéas Noirs”.

Trademark features of his works seem to be a strong sense of place to which one can readily relate from firsthand experience, or simply by googling images, and development of some historical theme to trigger or embellish a modern-day crime. In this case we have the Seine at Rouen as the setting for the excitement and visual feast of the “Armada”, the five yearly display of sailing ships from around the world which draws millions of visitors. This is a cue for tales of the pirates, buccaneers-cum-explorers from the past with their “chasse-partie” codes of honour, and dreams of utopia to be funded by booty which too often ended up lost overboard or stolen, to tantalise modern treasure hunters. Added to the mix are the quaint half-timbered houses of Rouen’s historic centre, including the macabre symbols of the plague carved into the ancient beams of the “aître” of Saint-Maclou, together with, in nearby Villequiers in a meander of the Seine, the statue of Victor Hugo, head in hand, and the remarkable stained glass church window portraying pirates boarding a ship.

With the Armada in full swing, a charismatic young Mexican sailor is found stabbed to death, his body marked with five curious tattoos (of a tiger, shark, crocodile etcetera), and branded with a hot iron. Led by Commissaire Gustav Parturel, who had banked on a crime-free period in which to enjoy the Armada with his two young children, the police make heavy weather of what soon becomes an escalating conundrum. Due to a mixture of foolhardy risk-taking and improbable luck, highly sexed journalist Maline Abruzze obtains vital information to help them to identify the arch-villain and avert a worse tragedy.

This may well sound a little hackneyed and corny. Certainly, the characters tend to be either stereotypes like the irascible Parturel whose family life has broken down under the pressure of his devotion to solving crime, or highly caricatured, such as the impossibly handsome Olivier Levasseur (named after a pirate ancestor, needless to say), Director of Press Relations for the Armada, whom the supposedly liberated Maline sets out to seduce before he can take the initiative himself.

The highly contrived and at times rather tediously written plot with its stilted dialogues relies heavily on coincidences, people arriving simultaneously at the same spot, or on highly implausible events which it would create too many spoilers to reveal. It is formulaic in revealing early on a mysterious puppet-master with a female accomplice, and in following the clichéd path to a climax in which he brags about his crimes (just in case we had failed to work them out) with arrogant complacency before carrying out his planned coup de grâce.

The novel seems to be mainly highly rated, presumably by those who in their addiction to crime thrillers are prepared to overlook these shortcomings, but I think that my secondhand copy of “Maman à tort” may well be my last Bussi novel.

“Le Monte-charge” or “Bird in a Cage” by Frédéric Dard: the fickle finger of fate

Le monte-charge (FREDERIC DARD) (French Edition) by [DARD, Frédéric]

Four years after his mother’s death, narrator Albert Herbin returns to her flat in which he has not set foot for six years and is filled with nostalgia for his childhood and their close relationship. What is the reason for his long absence? Why has he not cleared the place, even to the extent of removing a dead branch from a pot? Why is he so alone, half wanting to be recognised and half fearing it as he wanders the local streets while everyone else is celebrating Christmas? Daring to enter a post restaurant, his attention is drawn to the small child and attractive woman at the adjacent table who reminds him of his past love Anna – but how did she come to die?

As the details of Albert’s life are revealed, he is drawn inexorably into a fateful series of events which make him accessory to a serious crime, but how will it all end?

Bird in a Cage by [Dard, Frédéric]

Reminiscent of Hitchcock, this is one of the most ingenious just about plausible plots I have come across, full of twists leading to an unpredictable outcome, sustaining a powerful sense of anticipation and tension, yet managing at the same time to develop characters, create sympathy for those who have committed horrific acts, and conveys a strong sense of place. Even the abrupt, ambiguous open ending is masterful when you come to reflect on it.

The French title is a play on words, linking the “monte-charge” or cage-like lift, which plays an important part in the tale, to the Christmas tree trinket of a little velvet bird in a spangled cage which Herbin buys on an impulse. This has been translated in the English version as “Bird in a Cage” which has a further double meaning which it would be a spoiler to explain.

The French is so clear and expressive that I imagine it translates easily into a compelling read in English, all contained in a short, well-constructed story which could be read in a single sitting. Made into a film in the 1960s, the book has a cinematic quality, although I think it must lose some of its tension, subtlety and irony in the process.

“Beloved” by Toni Morrison: the guilt of the innocent

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, former slave Sethe persists in living with her sullen daughter Denver in the Cincinnati house widely believed to be haunted by the angry ghost of her murdered baby, whom she named “Beloved”, having earned the cost of carving this on her headstone by having sex with the engraver, regretting too late not to have spent enough time to pay for “Dearly” to be added first. Her life seems to improve with the arrival of Paul D (so named by his former master to distinguish him from Paul A or Paul F) who breaks a table in his wrestling to cast out the spirit of the furious baby, which has already driven away Sethe’s two sons. Yet her life is at risk of being taken over and perhaps destroyed by a second newcomer with whom she becomes obsessed, the oddly vacant young woman who calls herself Beloved and inexplicably seems to know about aspects of Sethe’s past life without being told.

Toni Morrison was inspired to write this novel by the real-life situation of Margaret Garner, the escaped slave who killed her child rather than have her suffer enslavement in turn. This prize-winning modern classic succeeds in portraying the fundamental evil of slavery, namely in depriving a person of his or her sent of identity. Her characters are bought and sold like objects or livestock, even by relatively humane owners. Relationships are not respected, nor even recognised with small children often unable to identify their mothers, husbands and wives are separated, women violated.

Continually risking bold experimentation in her style, Toni Morrison gave free rein to her vivid imagination and powerful, often poetical prose. Descriptions of childbirth and acts of violence are not for the squeamish. By contrast, the writing is often unexpectedly leavened by observations of wrily humorous clarity.

In the face of strong endorsements by famous feminist writers at the end of my copy of this novel, I hesitate to criticise this book. As an African-American, Toni Morrison was clearly well-qualified and justified in writing impassioned condemnations of the enduring evil effects of slavery long after its abolition. So why did I find it such hard going? This was only partly due to the frequent grimness of the subject matter. Although this will put some readers off, it is clearly relevant to the tale.

Despite appreciating the frequently used device of gradually revealing key facts, one problem for me was the confusing, often repetitive drip-feed nature of explanations for a number of intriguing questions. Why, how, even by whom, was Sethe’s baby killed? What really happened at the inaptly named “Sweet Home” where Sethe and her husband Halle worked for years until the estate was taken over by the sadistic “Schoolteacher”?

The worst aspect for me was what I believe Toni Morrison disliked to hear called “magic realism”. I concede that, being illiterate through no fault of her own, unable to tell the time except for knowing that it was noon when both hands of the clock pointed upwards together, Sethe was likely to be susceptible to superstition. Also, in a deprived slave community, tales of the supernatural passed down from tribal ancestors were all Sethe had of a personal history. However, are readers really expected to believe that the murdered child continues to make her presence felt as a kind of malign poltergeist, and that after being driven away by Paul D she is reincarnated in the body of Beloved who duly appears? Some scenes so resemble corny ghost stories that they seem to me to detract seriously from the calibre of the novel and muddy the “genre”.

I prefer the interpretation that the atmosphere in the house was tainted by Sethe’s sense of guilt and the opprobrium of the local community for what she had done, and that she and the young woman calling herself Beloved by coincidence were both disturbed, confused and wanting certain things to be so, such as having respectively a mother-daughter or a compensating love-vengeful hate relationship.

On reflection, having laboured through this novel, it rose in my estimation, and I should reread some passages to appreciate their originality and worth, but the tendency to melodrama, excessive sentimentality and an overblown style deter me from this.

“Unreliable sources” by John Simpson: Truth to tell

Unreliable Sources: How the Twentieth Century Was Reported

With a journalist’s frequent gift for bringing history alive, John Simpson employs many anecdotes and quotations from newspapers of the day to analyse the reporting in Britain of the major events from the Boer War around 1900 to the controversial Iraqi War of 2003.

I was most interested in the first half of the C20, that is the period I had not lived through so could not recall, and was intrigued to learn that the tabloid “red tops” of today were known around 1900 as the “yellow press” after a US comic strip. The phrase was coined by the New York Press to describe the sensational, exaggerated and often misleading form of popular journalism which was copied in Britain by newspaper owners like the Harmsworth family.

Although not apparently as influential as Murdoch in his heyday, the early C20 tycoons clearly interfered a good deal in the content of the newspapers they owned. For instance, Lord Rothermere, an ardent admirer of Hitler from the 1920s, wrote an editorial for his Daily Mail in 1933 stating, “The minor misdeeds of individual Nazis would be submerged by the immense benefits the new regime is already bestowing on Germany”. Rothermere was “the loudest supporter” in Fleet Street of Franco, announcing before the fateful Spanish Civil War that he was “the bright spot on the horizon”. At the same time, the press baron favoured the rise of Oswald Moseley, personally writing an article for the Mail entitled “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” without criticising their fascist tendencies. Yet when World War Two began in earnest, the tone changed and a Daily Mail journalist once praised as “the man who knows the Nazi leaders” was writing about the “staggering heroism” of the “weary but indomitable” British soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk in an exercise portrayed positively as an achievement.

John Simpson is scathing about the journalists who, from the safety of hotels well away from the battle lines, invented reports based on second-hand sources, praising the bravery of soldiers in “Boy’s Own” terms rather than recounting accurately the true grim conditions. Admittedly, communication was harder to conduct in the early C20, and throughout there have been the constraints of state censorship, and the need to “maintain morale”, combined with the prejudices of overweaning newspaper magnates as described above. Yet, as recently as 1999, Murdoch’s “Sun”, amongst others, was apparently distorting facts in reporting of the bombing of Serbia in its “Clobba Slobba” articles, in an attempt to keep the public “on side”.

Battles are the dominant theme, with the exception of the Abdication crisis over Edward VIII’s desire to marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. In this case, while the US press was reporting the scandal in detail, British newspapers were “victims of a more than usually painful attack of discretional lock-jaw” which was self-imposed since neither the government nor the police had applied any ban to reporting of the affair. Although it was asserted some years after the event that the Mirror had dared to break the story of the affair, John Simpson suggests that, despite having accumulated plenty of evidence, every single British newspaper “failed in its duty to tell people what was really going on, because its editor thought it would be intrusive, distasteful , disloyal or damaging to do so”. This may be compared with reporting on the Royal Family since the 1980s, culminating in no-holds-barred criticisms of Prince Andrew and discussion of the future of the monarchy during the December 2019 general election.

John Simpson suggests that it was probably during the Suez Crisis in the 1950s that newspapers began the attempt to analyse events seriously rather than simply outline the facts, or slavishly toe the government line. A surprising number of titles survived the century, with Murdoch playing a positive role in keeping, for instance, the Times going, although his political and commercial interests seem to have encroached on its independence. Simpson condemns the downward drive in standards which misused modern technology from the 1980s, such as illegal phone taps to infringe excessively on personal privacy. He argues that the Guardian and the Telegraph “probably come out of it best” in terms of independent-minded journalism.

I was a little disappointed by the conclusion which seems somewhat rushed, with a last-minute focus on the Iraq War which justifies a chapter in its own right, giving more space to expand on the influence of “spin doctors” and a “dodgy dossier” with the false claim that Saddam Hussein had the power to attack the UK “in 45 minutes”, which misled MPs to vote for war without the approval of the UN.

I would like Simpson to have included more about the role of the more “impartial” BBC, often seen by the printed press as a threat. Published in 2010, the book is now somewhat dated as regards the growing importance of the internet as a source of news. Inevitably, there is not enough space to explain fully the political background to many of the situations covered, but at least it inspires the reader to find out more about them.

“Laetitia Rodd and the Case of the Wandering Scholar” by Kate Saunders

Laetitia Rodd and the Case of the Wandering Scholar (A Laetitia Rodd Mystery Book 2) by [Saunders, Kate]

Widow of an archdeacon, Laetitia Rodd may have lost her social standing and comfortable lifestyle, but is not one to wallow in regrets. Instead, she relishes the opportunity to undertake investigations for her wealthy barrister brother, not only for the chance to earn a little but also for the intriguing situations in which they involve her, such as the chance to reunite the wealthy but terminally ill Jacob Welland with his brother Joshua, the “wandering scholar” of the title with whom he fell out too long ago “over a woman”. Before she manages to solve the mystery surrounding Joshua, she is distracted by the need to prove the innocence of two acquaintances accused of a murder of which she cannot believe them to be guilty, although the evidence against them is troubling.

This modern take on a Victorian detective story reminds me of Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White”. With its meandering plot loaded with often larger than life characters, it is an entertaining if lightweight read, made worthwhile by a strong sense of place and time, and a well-developed, sympathetic narrator in the form of Laetitia Rodd. She has a wry sense of humour, not taking herself too seriously. Although bound by the conventions and religious piety of the 1850s, she is fundamentally open-minded, admittedly as imagined by a C21 rather than C19 writer. When Inspector Blackbeard apologises for bringing her a cup of tea bought from a “not very genteel” stall, she has the sense to drink it because she is thirsty. If a servant suddenly inherits money which raises him into a different social class, she tries to help him to integrate rather than treat him with disdain. Similarly, if friends commits adultery or even murder, she tries to understand what led them to do so. While remaining essentially conventional and devout, she is open to other points of view, and to questioning her own.

The plot is tied up quite neatly at the end, leaving me with only a couple of minor queries. I like the way the author has brought together events both real and fictional from the period to weave into her plot: the story of the “poor Oxford scholar” in Mathew Arnold’s poem, who “tired of knocking at preferment’s door” went off to live with the gipsies where he imagines, like Joshua, that he can live according to the “ancient rhythms of passing seasons, outside the pressures of the modern world”; the ingrained social inequality of Victorian society for which a Tennyson poem, “Locksley Hall” provides a recurring metaphor, “every door is barred with gold, and opens but to golden keys”; the notorious murderer Eugene Aram, portrayed in Bulwer-Lytton’s 1832 novel as a romantic hero who killed to obtain the money he needed to get on in the world, justifying his crime because it enabled him to do good. So, this engaging detective yarn has an authentic, serious core, in raising complex moral dilemmas.