Tag-Archive for ◊ French literary prize ◊

• Saturday, February 27th, 2016

Amin Maalouf was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1949, the second of four children, from a family that originated in Yemen. He spent the first years of his childhood in Cairo, Egypt, where his parents lived at the time, before returning to Beirut a few years later. He studied at the French Jesuit school, Collège Notre-Dame de Jamhour followed by the Université saint Joseph in Beirut where he read sociology and economics. His father, Ruchdi Maalouf, was a renowned writer, a journalist, a poet and a talented painter as well as the owner of a newspaper. From an early age Amin Maalouf wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Amin Maalouf became an editor for the leading Beirut daily newspaper, El Nahar International, and covered many events around the world, like the fall of the Ethiopian monarchy in September 1974, the last battle of Saigon in March and April 1975, as well as important events in Somalia, Yemen, India and Bangladesh among others.

In 1976, fourteen months after the Lebanese civil war, Maalouf flew to Paris with his wife and three young children, where he worked for the weekly, Jeune Afrique, and became editor in chief while resuming his trips and reporting from all over the world for his weekly. After the big success of his first novel, Leo The African in 1986, he dedicates himself to writing full-time. He still lives in Paris with his wife and three grown-up sons.

Maalouf ‘s mother tongue is Arabic but all his books are written in French. He has written fiction, non-fiction as well as opera librettos and his books have been translated into several languages. In 1993 Maalouf won the oldest and most famous French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for The Rock of Tanios published the same year. In 1998 he received the European prize of the Essay for In the Name of Identity and in 2010 the Prince of Asturias award of Letters for all his work. In 2011 he was the first Lebanese to become a member of the prestigious Académie française.

Maalouf has been awarded honorary doctorates by the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, the University of Tarragona in Spain and the University of Evora in Portugal.

The Rock Of Tanios, based loosely on a true story, intertwines the Lebanese history of 1830 with a legend passed from one generation to another. A world where intrigues, conflicts and competition between the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, France and Britain end in battles on Mount Lebanon. All these factors among others help to forge the destiny of Tanios Kishk, a remarkable and mysterious character.

Tanios, whose hair grows white at an early age giving him the look of a wise man despite being naive, is a tortured soul looking for identity when he fortuitously discovers his illegitimate birth. He is an intelligent, rational teenager who challenges laws and established social conventions. His fate is similar to a Greek tragedy. He seems to inadvertently trigger family, clanic and regional conflicts, which changes everything in the whole area, including people’s lives. He also unexpectedly becomes a useful mediator between leaders, despite his young age.

The story is set in the small Lebanese village of Kfaryabda – the name is fictional but the village is real. The book’s title refers to a rock, shaped like a majestic throne, to which Tanios – when he becomes a mythical figure – ascends, sits on the rock for a short while before disappearing for ever in a mysterious way and, according to the local legend, not seen again. That is why the maleficent rock carries the name of Tanios. The only rock in the area that has a human name and the only rock that children are not allowed to climb for fear of the superstitious belief that they might disappear like Tanios if they sit on it.

The narrator obtained his story from two sources: the three historical, weighty “authentic” documents and his grandfather’s cousin, the ninety-six-year-old Gebrayel, a former history teacher who is passionate about the events of the nineteenth century that took place in his region.

The narrator, the characters and happenings are imaginary, as well as being based in varying degrees on real persons and real events.

Tanios is born in suspicious circumstances. Officially his father is Sheikh Gerios who is highly ranked, being Sheikh Francis’ intendant and yet servile in his attitude and his mother is the very beautiful, Lamia. There are rumours in the village that Tanios is the son of the powerful, patriarchal, feudal lord, the philanderer, Sheikh Francis, ruler of Kfaryabda, who never hesitates to use his “droit du seigneur” over the girls and women villagers.

The Rock Of Tanios is for Maalouf a truly nostalgic return to the roots of his beloved Lebanon in days of yore. Maalouf in his “Author’s Folder” titled: A Forgotten World, says about Lebanon that it’s: “A country of extreme gentleness and extreme violence, a bewildering country…A captivating and unforgettable country, undoubtedly”.

The book is an enchanting, fascinating, colourful, bitter-sweet tale from the nineteenth century, underlining the wisdom and madness of humans, with a background of real Lebanese history, legend, superstitions, rituals, tribalism, love and vengeance, the description of a feudal society based on loyalty. It’s poetically written, with passages like this one: “Fate comes and goes through us like the shoemaker’s needle goes through the leather he is shaping”.

In The Rock Of Tanios the characters are well depicted and moving; an array of appealing personalities contrasting with forceful and devious ones. The story is like one of the One Thousdand And One Night stories, with excentric characters like the strange hawker multeer, Nader who writes philosophical books and brings them to market in the hope of selling them to learned people.

The reader feels like going on an enchanting journey across time and place, similar to Maalouf’s other unforgettable, fascinating and beautifully written novel, Samarkand, which carries us to eleventh century Persia with the story revolving around the famous philosopher and poet Omar Khayyam.

“Have I not sought beyond the legend, the truth? and when I believed to have reached the truth, it was made of legend”. Very succintly put by Amin Maalouf to describe the quintessence of the whole story behind The Rock Of Tanios.

• Saturday, March 03rd, 2007

Amélie Nothomb is the daughter of the Belgian writer and former ambassador to Japan, Patrick Nothomb. She was born in Kobe in 1967. By the time she was five years old, she was perfectly bilingual.

After leaving Japan, Amélie spends her childhood in China, Burma and New York. Living as an expatriate combined with the feeling of loneliness, made her withdraw into her own shell. Especially after returning to Belgium at the age of seventeen and having the shock of finding herself a foreigner amongst her own people. The shock was brutal and this triggered in her the need to write as an escapade.

“Hygiéne de l’assassin”, her first book was published in 1992 and was an immediate success, with a French literary prize. In 1993 she published “Le sabotage amoureux”, then in 1994 “Les combustibles”, in 1995 “Les catilinaires”, in 1996 “Péplum”, in 1997 “Attentat”, in 1998 “Mercure”, in 2000 “Métaphysique des tubes”, in 2001 “Cosmétique de l’ennemi” etc…

Amélie Nothomb writes about three books per year, but decides each time to publish only one per year and every time it’s a commercial success.

Her eighth book “Fear and Trembling” was published in 1999 and was a winner of the Grand Prix de l’Académie Française and Prix Internet du livre. The book was translated into 14 languages and sold half a million copies. A big success. Two of her books have been made into films: “Hygiéne de l’assassin” and “Fear and Trembling”.

The main theme of “Fear and Trembling” is the clash of cultures between East and West. It was told in the ancient Japanese tradition that if anyone wanted to address the Japanese emperor, it had to be with “Fear and Trembling”, the emperor being the highest figure of authority. This belief is followed on all levels in Japan, as the author reveals the very rigid hierarchy in the typical headquarters of a Japanese international conglomerate in Tokyo called Yumimoto.

Amélie-San is reprimanded for not taking the right steps by going through the correct channels, despite the fact that her deed was very useful to the company.

What the author wants the westerner to understand, is that in the oriental mentality, it’s not the successful results that count, since achieving them the ‘untraditional’ way can cause more harm than good.

Consequently one has to follow the system blindly and not be an ‘individualist’, which is the worst betrayal to the traditional system: “Mister Tenshi didn’t want to sabotage the company. I begged him to let me work on the report. I alone am responsible.”… “Mister Omochi stood open-mouthed for a moment before coming up to me and bellowing right into my face.” Do you dare defend yourself?” “No, I’m blaming myself. I’m claiming all the wrong for myself. I alone should be punished.” “You dare to defend this snake!”

Then follows the arguments with Miss Mori Fubuki: “I’m twenty-nine years old. You are twenty-two. I’ve been in this position since last year. I fought for it for years. Did you think that you were going to get a comparable job within a matter of weeks?”

Due to not following the ‘correct’ system, Amélie-san has to endure the most degrading retrogression. Starting as an interpreter and ending in the humiliating job of a toilet attendant.

Like most of Amélie Nothomb’s books, “Fear and Trembling” includes some personal, real life experiences. A kind of an autobiography. The style of her writing is indicative of her own character; subtle, humouristic and extravagant. I recall her telling Bernard Pivot in the French TV programme “Apostrophe”, that she takes delight in eating rotten fruit.

Amélie Nothomb’s style is uncomplicated which makes the book easy to read despite the issue involved, being the relationships and methods of Japanese white-collars, and their entrapment in their uncompromising system.

Amélie Nothomb shows us very clearly her compassion for those people, but at the same time expresses her frustration at being unable to change anything, or even to reason with them:
“Le plus insupportable, c’était de voir mon bienfaiteur humilié par ma faute. Monsieur Tenshi était un homme intelligent et cosciencieux: il avait pris un gros risque pour moi, en pleine connaissance de cause. Aucun intérêt personnel n’avait guidé sa démarche: il avait agi par simple altruisme. En récompense de sa bonté, on le traînait dans la boue.”
She makes us aware of her concern with human relationships throughout her book.

Amélie Nothomb’s humouristic tone can be hilarious at times or even like a caricature, but nevertheless carries behind it more than what it suggests.

Unlike other books we read, in “Fear and Trembling”, the author doesn’t take us anywhere in Tokyo, apart from the restricted view from her office window. The year Amélie spends at the Yumimoto company is all devoted to a description of the Japanese headquarters, the people working for it, their devotion to their work and the hierarchical system. Not forgetting to describe at length, the uncompromising Japanese mentality.

At the end of her one year contract with Yumimoto, Amélie-San returns to Europe. And like a phoenix, after all the humiliation endured, emerges from the ashes, glorious and successful with her prize winning book “Hygiéne de l’assassin”.

She then receives a congratulatory letter from her former superior, Mori Fubuki acknowledging her success. The letter was written in Japanese as a sign of friendship which seems to have been accepted at last.

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