Author:
• Saturday, December 21st, 2019

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, before returning with his parents 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.

Following his university degree, Amin Maalouf became an editor for the leading Beirut daily newspaper, El Nahar International, and covered many world events. 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.

His career changed as a result of the big success of his first novel, Leo Africanus, published in1986. He consequently dedicated himself full-time to writing. 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. He presently continues to live in Paris with his wife and three grown-up sons.

In 1993 Maalouf won the oldest and most famous French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. In 1998 he received the European Award of the Essay 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. Some universities in Europe have awarded him honorary doctorates.

Maalouf has proven himself to be a gifted storyteller. More often, the stories he writes are in a historical context: Leo Africanus, Samarkand, The Gardens Of Light, The Rock Of Tanios and Balthasar’s Odyssey.

Leo Africanus is an imaginary autobiography based on a true story written like a memoir by the knowledgeable and perspicacious Leo, addressed to his son, Giuseppe, born in Rome. He tells his son: “Many men are discovering the vast world just trying to make a fortune. As for you, my son, it is by seeking to know the world that you will stumble on a treasure”.

Leo Africanus is a historical story about the travels and adventures of Hassan Ibn Mohamed Al-Wazzan, born in Granada, Spain in 1485 and died in Tunis in 1554. Hassan was a traveller, a merchant, a diplomat and a geographer. Most of what is known of his life has been gathered from autobiographical notes in his notable work: Description Of Africa, published in 1550.

The BBC produced a documentary about the life of Hassan Al Wazzan in 2011 called “Leo Africanus: A Man Between Worlds”. The film follows Al Wazzan throughout his travels from Granada to Fez and Timbuktu, going all the way to Rome.

At the age of thirty-one, Hassan is abducted by Sicilian pirates. One of them, a sixty-year-old called Pietro Bovadiglia, who committed several murders and was afraid of dying before redeeming his sins. Therefore, he decided to give Hassan as a gift to the representative of God on earth, Pope Leo X, the great Pope of the Renaissance.

Fascinated by Hassan’s intelligence, fast learning and adaptation to his new surroundings, the pontiff gave him his freedom after a year and strongly encouraged him to adopt the Christian faith. He had him baptised in 1520 as Johannes Leone de Medici, who became Leo Africanus, referring to his origins. Despite that, it is believed that Leo died a Muslim.

The novel is divided into four parts or books, as the author calls them. The story follows every year’s events as well as the main cities that Leo lived in for a time: Granada, Fez, Timbuktu, Cairo, Constantinople and Rome. Readers accompany Hassan from the day of his birth in 1488 in Granada to Rome where his story ended in 1527.

At an early age, Hassan witnesses the fall of Granada in January 1492, the Moors only remaining bastion in Spain. His family moves to Fez where most of the Arabs and Jews from Granada found refuge escaping from the Spanish Inquisition. Then Hassan travels to cosmopolitan Egypt, ruled at the time by the Ottoman Empire. The story draws to a close in Rome during the Renaissance period.

Leo Africanus is a multi-branched account vividly described and minutely detailed. It is a colourful tale told during several journeys and significant events that took place between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in different parts of the world. The fascination of this story relies on the exciting places visited, the regions and countries in Africa and Europe with their different cultures, religions, beliefs, languages and food.

Sagacious and wise, Leo transcends countries, continents and all boundaries. He is a link between these different worlds, bridging gaps between East and West and between the three monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. He says: “From my mouth, you will hear Arabic, Turkish, Castilian, Berber, Hebrew, Latin and Vulgar Italian, for all languages, all prayers belong to me. However, I belong to none. I belong only to God and the earth and it is to them that one day I will return”. An invitation by Leo from the heart for respect, leniency and tolerance.

The story of Leo Africanus is about constant readaptation to new surroundings when exile is not an option and how a bright, resourceful person profits from his present condition turning it to his benefit by making it a success.

Leo Africanus is a delightful tale that must have required intensive research. It is skilfully written – I read the original French version. The various events encountered transport the reader on a magic carpet to a spellbinding world, akin to the tales of One Thousand And One Nights – a charming escapade made of wonder in distant worlds of a bygone era filled with upheavals and unrest.

Author:
• Saturday, October 26th, 2019

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi was born in Juhu, Mumbai in 1977. In 1999 he obtained an MA degree in International Journalism at the University of Westminster in London, where he specialised in photography. He also received an MS degree in Mass Communications from San Jose State University in 2002.

Shanghvi worked as a chef and a kennel boy before becoming a writer. He writes articles for magazines and newspapers including the Sunday Times Of India, San Francisco Chronicle and Elle. He presently lives between Albany, California and Mumbai, India.

The Last Song Of Dusk, published in 2004, is Shanghvi’s acclaimed first novel which has been translated into several languages. It received the prestigious British Betty Trask Award given to outstanding first novels for writers under the age of thirty-five. It also won the Italian Premio Grinzane Cavour for the Best Debut Novel and was nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award.

The story of The Last Song Of Dusk is set in colonial India of the 1920s. It starts with the beautiful twenty-one-year-old Anuradha Patwardhan, who is gifted with a beautiful voice and with such bewitching songs that they say that “when she sings, even the moon listens”.

The novel begins with Anuradha leaving her family home in Udaipur and travelling with her father to Bombay for a matchmaking marriage, all arranged by her aunt, Radha-mashi, to a man that Anuradha has never met before. The man is twenty-seven-year-old, very handsome, “highly thought of”, physician, Vardhamaan Gandharva, who is also a skilled storyteller.

The fifth line of the first chapter of the novel foreshadows future tragic events as a sort of kismet (fate). It is implied just before the protagonist’s departure for Bombay to meet her prospective suitor. Her mother clutches “her lovely hand through the window of the black Victoria and whispers: “in this life, my darling, there is no mercy”. The die is cast.

Later in the book, the author writes: “We’ll probably never save our soul (…) Life essentially seeks out balance. I have found that it is in the habit of trading one sorrow for one joy until one cancels out the other.”

The Last Song Of Dusk’s magic realism or elements of the fantastic, or “heightened realism” as the author prefers to call it, comes from the author’s fertile imagination. It is illustrated by Anuradha, who is a legend in Udaipur, her home town, for her spellbinding songs, which are entrancing melodies passed on by her family.

The peacocks gather in the train station upon Anuradha’s call to bid her farewell by “unfurling a melody”. The talking, malicious pet parrot, Zenobia, belonging to Vardhamaan’s ugly, sinister, abusive and jealous stepmother, Divi-bai. Vardhamaan and Anuradha shared the family house with her, preceding the terrible accidental death of their three-year-old son, Mohan, who probably died due to the curse of the couple’s stepmother unable to bear the happiness of others.

While still grieving their son’s death, Vardhamaan and Anuradha, who are slowly pulling away from each other, move to a new home by the seaside in Bombay. The “disconsolate” “Sea Palace” or Dariya Mahal in Gujarati is still mourning its previous occupant, Edward, son of Lord and Lady Beauford. Edward is a passionate lover, who dies heartbroken waiting for his beloved Indian, who does not share the same feeling and therefore never returns.

Since Edward’s death, the bereaved Dariya Mahal antagonises its new lodgers. Shloka, the couple’s second son, born in Dariya Mahal, stays alive because his mother makes a pact with the bedevilled house saying: “let my child live…and I’ll send the child away…from you…from all of this…to a place of safety”. Nevertheless, the child is born mute for no plausible reason apart from the pertaining evil house’s wrath.

Shanghvi’s imagination stretches further with the beautifully irresistible, fourteen-year-old orphan girl, Nandini Hariharan. She is a distant cousin, who joins Anuradha and Vardhamaan in Dariya Mahal. Nandini is a bohemian autodidactic artist who is not afraid of provoking scandals. She is a beedi smoker and walks on water as well as mates with leopards. Nandini is uncharacteristically precocious for her age and time.

The saying goes that: “seven generations back, on her maternal side, a woman had coupled with a leopard in the mountains of Matheran and to this day the family could not rid the bane of cat’s blood in their veins. Blood that made the women gorgeous and selfish and recondite”.

The Last Song Of Dusk is the saga of a family who, despite being struck by disasters, never yields. An original dark tale which depicts several calamities, loss, grievance and love. The writing is abundant with diverse, evocative, detailed descriptions as well as elaborate metaphors. The author makes his reader navigates amid a parade of colourful characters throughout the pages.

Nandini meets Gandhi and makes a daring remark about his hand-woven loincloth being sexy. She becomes the muse of Khalil Muratta; the sought after painter. Some of the characters are eccentric, like Libya Dass “who for years hauled along her alabaster bathtub to parties, where it was brought up like a palanquin”. Others are minor characters like Anuradha’s best friend, the terminally ill Pallavi and the sixteen-year-old Irish schoolboy, Sherman Miller, who is besotted with Nandini from the first time they meet.

The author portrays tormented characters evoking the reader’s empathy. As for the unnecessary crude sex scenes, they are used aplenty. The story, which entangles reality with fantasy, has an overall overwhelming melancholy feeling. The fleeting moments of happiness are brief – it is a mixture of tragic “kismet” and lust. The author says: “I’m very interested in the ways we transact sexual desire, the nature of longing, and how we grieve”.