Archive for the Category ◊ Book Reviews ◊

Author:
• Friday, January 31st, 2020

Mikkel Birkegaard was born in 1968 in Denmark where he still lives. He is a computer engineer by profession as well as a writer. His debut novel, The Library Of Shadows, which became an instant bestseller, was first published in Birkegaard’s native country in 2007. The English version was published in 2009, followed by several other translations.

Mikkel Birkegaard says about his novel, The Library Of Shadows, that he worked on it for seven years, wrote it in two years, reworked it for two more years and then looked for a publisher for the next three years following many refusals.

The Library Of Shadows begins with the demise of the Italian, Luca Campelli, the librarian and owner of the old antiquarian bookshop called “Libri di Luca”, situated in the centre of Copenhagen. Luca Campelli, who has just returned home after a business trip, dies brutally in very mysterious circumstances soon after his arrival, while reading a book late at night in his store.

Following Luca’s death, there is an arson attempt on the same premises, which will intrigue the only inheritor to the business, Campelli’s son, the thirty-three-year-old Jon.

Father and son have been estranged for twenty years following the puzzling suicide of the wife and mother, Mrs Marianne Campelli. Jon is half Italian, half Danish. He is a successful lawyer working for a prominent law firm.

After what happened to both his parents, Jon finds himself obliged to dedicate his time searching for his family’s history. Through his research he discovers that for many years his father had been holding secret meetings with an extraordinary group of book lovers, having considerable powers inherited from the time of the renowned, monumental library of ancient Alexandria, Egypt.

Unearthing his father’s long and uncommon underground bibliophile society exposes Jon to a rival clandestine book circle with similar magic powers. They are called “the Shadow Organisation”, led by a dubious, wealthy businessman named Remer, who will try to destroy Jon and his new friends.

Remer fails in his endeavour and finds that Jon is a powerful medium. Consequently, the power- thirsty Remer attempts to manipulate Jon’s mind to have him join his community to enhance their power greatly for criminal purposes. Remer is hoping to gain control by taking on evil supremacy over the world and influencing its leaders for his own benefit.

The author explains that there are the Lectors or transmitters, like old Iversen, Luca’s long-time faithful assistant at Libri di Luca, Jon, Luca’s son and Remer, leader of the opponent’s group.

Through their reading, these Lectors influence their listeners’ feelings and perceptions regarding the text read by charging it with whatever emphasis they desire. They control their listeners’ thinking by generating pleasant, colourful, life-like images which transport them inside the world of their story.

To succeed in fulfilling this endeavour, the choice of texts is essential. “Fiction is more effective than non-fiction and the quality of the work is also significant (…) certain books become ‘charged’ when they are read, so that the text presentation becomes stronger – more effective at communicating the message and emotions it contains. Older and frequently read volumes are therefore more powerful than new, unread copies”.

The second type is the Receivers, like the red-haired, severely dyslexic young Katherina, Luca’s protégée. She has the ability to tune into people whenever they read, whether aloud or silently to themselves.

The intensity of a Transmitter reading can have a significant influence on the Receiver, who amplifies the text, rendering it very persuasive. The combination of a Transmitter versus Receiver can be extremely high-powered.

The Library Of Shadows is a very original, captivating mystery. It is a supernatural thriller as well as an esoteric fantasy fiction of people born with exceptional powers. The writing is smooth, easy to read, but there are some unfortunate lengthy parts which could have been avoided.

The third-person narration is mainly by the two likeable protagonists, the lovers; Jon and Katherina. On the opposite side, there are the detestable, Machiavellian Remer and his faithful minion and spy, Pau. The characters are well developed and feel real on both sides, whether heroes or villains. The action scenes are skillfully and vividly described.

The Library Of Shadows is a fascinating novel aimed at book lovers by placing the books in the foreground as the main characters. The story subject is the magical power of reading. I am questioning what would happen if reading could take people far beyond what they think, creating disturbing or enjoyable as well as unexplainable events? A thought-provoking book.

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.