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• Saturday, April 26th, 2008

Margaret Forster was born in Carlisle (England) in 1938. She was educated at the Carlisle and County High School for Girls. She won a scholarship to Sommerville College, Oxford where she was awarded an honors degree in History.

Margaret Forster married the writer and broadcaster Hunter Davies in 1960. Today they live between London and the lake district in England. They have three children, two daughters and a son. Their eldest daughter Caitlin also became a novelist.

Margaret Forster worked as a teacher in Islington, North London from 1961 to 1963. Starting from 1963 she worked as a novelist, a biographer, a contributor to newspapers and journals, and as a regular broadcaster for the BBC. She was also on the Arts Council literary panel for three years, and a chief non-fiction reviewer for the London Evening Standard.

Since 1964 Margaret Forster has been very prolific. She has written biographies, criticism, fiction and non-fiction. She has won many prizes and awards for her fiction and non-fiction works. Her bibliography is quite long, amongst her novels is the very successful 1965 Georgie Girl, which was made into a film in 1966, and a short lived Broadway musical in 1970.

Keeping the World Away is the story of a painting, the women who owned it, and the message it bestowed on them. In the prologue, the young school girl Gillian, introduces the original theme of the novel; how about if a painting had a real life of its own, according to who owned it, and what it conveyed to the people who looked at it.

Gillian says to her teacher after staring and staring at one painting in The Tate Gallery for a while and noticing that “something was there which she couldn’t quite grasp… The lives of the actual paintings, especially one of hers. I was wondering where it had been, who had owned it, who had looked at it. And other things – I mean,what effect did it have on the people who have looked at it ? What has it meant to them, how have they looked at it, did they feel the same as I did, did they see what I saw.”

Keeping The World Away portrays the struggle of female artists in finding their way, their independence and freedom. Margaret Forster who is a feminist, like her predecessor Virginia Wolf in A Room Of One’s Own, describes how women from the early days of the twentieth century aspired to gain recognition from a society monopolised by men. They wanted their financial freedom as well as their mental freedom. Virginia Wolf said : “There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of the mind.”

The novel is divided into six sections. The first section is a semi-fictionalised story based on a real painting, the corner of Gwen’s room in Paris, produced by Gwen John at the beginning of the twentieth century, and of the genuine Welsh artists Gwen John and her brother Augustus who where born two years apart in Haverfordwest, South Wales, Gwen in 1876 and Augustus in 1878 and both became artists. Gwen went to live in Paris and fell madly in love with the famous sixty four year-old French sculptor Rodin. Her passion was short lived by her lover who distanced himself from her young, “vigorous” and “voracious” needs.

Feeling lonely and forlorn, but at the same time serene, Gwen painted the quiet, and what she perceived as a peaceful corner of her Parisian attic room, yearning while waiting for her inattentive lover, Rodin to come and visit her, like in the past. She worked with a great deal of concentration and minutiae, putting her feeling and strong emotions into the painting, in order for her lover to understand her state of mind, and her longing for him: “she had wanted it to prove her own triumph. She had wanted to show Rodin that this was evidence of her transformation. She had imagined him walking into her room and being transfixed, overcome with admiration for what she had achieved.” Didn’t he tell her that “she must be composed and calm and let his own tranquillity enter her soul. Only then, he told her, would she do good work.”

Gwen waited patiently for Rodin who never went back to her. She offered the painting to her dear friend Ursula, who lost it during the journey back to England. From then on the saga of Gwen’s room corner painting begins.

The following five parts of the novel follow the journey of Gwen’s painting: The different women who owned it, loved it and shared the same aspiration felt by it, despite the different message the painting bestowed on each one of them, and how it had affected their lives, and that true art can have a life of its own.Charlotte, the dreamy, intellectual and art appreciator. Stella, the ex nurse and amateur artist. Lucasta, The artist specialised in portraits. Ailsa, Paul Mortimer’s oppressed wife. Then the novel ends as it started with Gillian who is now studying art in Paris and will be inheriting the Gwen’s painting after Mme Verlon’s death.

The painting of Gwen John’s room in Paris is today hanging in the Sheffield city art gallery in England.

The title of the book is taken from Gwen John’s own note book. She wrote : “Rules to keep the world away: Do not listen to people (more than is necessary); do not look at people (more than is necessary); have as little intercourse with people as possible.”

Gwen John (1876-1939) and her brother Augustus John (1878-1961) studied at the Slade school of Art in London. During their life time, Augustus became famous at an early age, while his introverted, solitary sister Gwen, who was obsessively in love with Rodin, remained in the limelight. Her paintings mainly depicting interiors, still-lifes and portraits were less appreciated than her brother’s bold style of painting. He was considered a great artist of his time. Recently,Gwen’s art became internationally renown while by contrast her brother’s paintings seem to have fallen into the shadow.

Margaret Forster’s combination of fact and fiction is done in a masterly way, with an easy-to-follow plot and a clear and limpid writing.

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Category: Book Reviews  | One Comment
Author:
• Saturday, March 01st, 2008

Yasmina Khadra is the pen-name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian ex-army officer who while still in the army used this pseudonym in order to avoid submitting his manuscripts for approval by the military censors, due to his notoriety which irritated his superiors. He was encouraged by his wife to work clandestinely by using her first two names, Yasmina Khadra.

He started writing his collection of stories “Houria” at the age of 17. Six more novels were published under his real name while in the army and before adopting his pen-name, Yasmina Khadra.

Mohammed Moulessehoul was born in Kenadsa in the Algerian Sahara in January 1955. His father joined the National Liberation Army in 1956 in the war against the French occupier. After Algeria’s independence in 1962, Mohammed Moulessehoul was sent by his father to cadet school to become an officer which also satisfied his mother’s wish.

After thirty six years in military service, Mohammed Moulessehoul decided to go into exile in France in 2001, and devoted his entire time to writing. He currently lives in Aix-En-Provence in the South of France.

Mohammed Moulessehoul received the Médaille d’Or from the Académie Française in 2001 and the Prix des Libraires in 2006. He was also awarded the trophy of Créateurs sans Frontières, presented to him on the 19th of February 2008 at the Quai d’Orsay, by the French minister of foreign affairs, Bernard Kouchner.

Some of Mohammed Moulessehoul’s books have been translated in 25 countries, but only a few books were translated from French into English : “In the Name of God” in 2000, “Wolf Dreams” in 2003, “Morituri” in 2003, “The Swallows of Kabul” in 2004 and “Double Blank in 2005.

He wrote several books about the civil war in Algeria and is today one of Algeria’s most important writers. The Swallows of Kabul has been a best seller, it will be made into a film and will be released soon in the cinemas.

The Swallows of Kabul is a parallel story of two doomed Afghani couples who have seen better days but now have to endure a hard life under the Taliban’s oppressive regime.

Mohsen Ramat and his wife Zunaira are well educated, they meet at university, he comes from a middle-class family of prosperous merchants and she is the daughter of a distinguished man. Mohsen is looking forward to a diplomatic career, and Zunaira’s ambition is to become a magistrate. She is a liberated feminist and a human rights activist when a student at university. All these dreams are shattered when the Taliban come to power. Mohsen’s family business is destroyed and Zunaira has to stay home because women under the Taliban ruling are not allowed to study, have a job or go out without wearing the burka, which Zunaira felt was stripping her of her identity and her freedom.

Atiq Shaukat an ex-mujahideen fighter from the Russian war, and now a part time jail keeper, lives with his wife Musarrat an ex-nurse who is suffering from a painful and terminal illness. He married her twenty years ago out of gratitude because she saved his life when he was severely wounded by the Russians during the war. He doesn’t love her and can’t bear the thought of coming back home to find her lying in her corner and him having to deal with the household chores.

Mohsen and Atiq have many things in common. The dissatisfaction of their gloomy life, the fear of the unknown, the boredom and the aimless and endless wandering in the streets of Kabul day after day, and the rejection of the intolerable situation the Taliban had led the country into. The two couples are deeply depressed and distraught by the frightening nightmare they are going through. They try to remain sane amongst all the insanity surrounding them caused by the Taliban’s repressive regime and the state of advanced decomposition in the city.

Mohsen releases his rage by joining a crowd stoning an adulterous woman to death. He always had a gentle nature, he felt horrified by his act, and couldn’t even believe that he was capable of such a deed. In order to unburden himself of such a heavy weight on his conscience, he had to confess to his wife what he had done: “I don’t know what came over me. It happened so fast. It was as if the crowd put a spell on me. I don’t recall gathering up the stones. I only remember that I couldn’t get rid of them, and an irresistible rage seemed to come into my arm… What frightens me and saddens me at the same time is that I didn’t even try to resist.”

Atiq doesn’t know what’s happening to him, he can no longer withstand the pitiless violence of the Taliban regime he genuinely believed in at the beginning. He feels claustrophobic in his prison cubby hole called an office. He feels disoriented and lost : “What’s happening to me? I can’t bear the dark, I can’t bear the light, I don’t like standing up or sitting down, I can’t tolerate old people or children, I hate it when anybody looks at me or touches me. In fact, I can hardly stand myself. Am I going stark raving mad?” “The prison world is getting Atiq down. During the last several weeks, he has devoted much consideration to his position as a jailer. The more he thinks about it, the less merit he finds in it, and even less nobility. This realization has put him in a state of constant rage.”

Zunaira loses her mind by becoming shockingly extreme in her attitude and behaviour towards her husband. She doesn’t want to see him any more because she holds him responsible for the shame she had to endure from a Taliban police agent in the street. She no longer respects him. In order to stop her husband arguing with her she pushes him violently, his head hit the wall, and he dies instantly.

Musarrat leads a tortured life without any hope of recovering from this long, mysterious and consuming disease. She decides in her own drastic and extreme way, to sacrifice herself in order to make her husband happy. She wants to substitute herself for the woman he fell in love with and who is sentenced to death. She tell her husband : “I’ve been inspired by the Lord : That woman is not going to die. She’ll be everything I couldn’t be for you. You have no idea how happy I am this morning. I’ll be more useful dead than alive. And at long last, you’re being offered a chance. I beg you not to ruin it. Listen to me, just this once…” She is a selfless, angelic figure amongst all the surrounding abominations.

Mohammed Moulessehoul in his powerful, realistically disturbing and traumatic, short but very dense story is able to convey the misery, injustice, suffocation and oppression of the devastated city of Kabul under the Taliban regime. He writes with great compassion about the complexity of human nature when faced with extreme hardship, absurd rulers and rules, and how extreme repression and senseless violence can bring people to the brink of helplessness and despair to the extent of losing their souls. They end up dying or raving mad.

Mohammed Moulessehoul in The Swallows of Kabul is writing about an Afghanistan that he has never visited. He says in one of his interviews that he understands the era of the Taliban very well.

“I understand that Taliban mentality very well. The landscape, the struggles, the hardness of life-all these are just like my homeland.” He points to the cover of his book: “Look at that photo (of a woman in a burka crossing a parched, desolate city scape) , that could be the Sahara village where I was born… I wanted to bring a new look from a Muslim on the tragedy of Afghanistan. And to bring to it a western perspective at the same time. When there are two perspectives there is a better chance of understanding.”

Understanding that it is extremism which is the cancer of Islam.