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BSFA Awards Booklet 2013

A welcome innovation this year was the inclusion in the booklet of pieces to do with the Award for non-fiction. The nominees here were:-

“Sleeps with Monsters” by Liz Bourke. Two extracts from Bourke’s blog for tor.com are included. One is about fantasy, the other gaming.

“Going Forth by Night” by John J Johnston. A discussion on the history of Mummies in literature from the introduction to Unearthed, an anthology published in partnership with The Egypt Exploration Society.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer. The Awards booklet contained an extract from the book’s first chapter.

As usual the booklet contains all the nominees for the short story award.

I have already reviewed Spin by Nina Allan, TTA Press.

Selkie Stories are for Losers by Sofia Samatar, Strange Horizons, January 2013.

A girl who works in a restaurant has a host of selkie stories which she says always end in the same way, except she will never tell one. Of course; she does. A story about the faces we present to the world, the masks we hide behind and how we yearn to be our true selves.

Saga’s Children by E J Swift, The Lowest Heaven, Pandemonium, (Jurassic London)

Saga was the most famous astronaut in the Solar System before, and after, she took off into the unknown from the surface of Ceres and was never heard from again. (There is an explosion here due to “unstable gases released by drilling.” No mention of the necessary oxygen though.) The lives of her three children, who up till a few days before that moment had not realised they had siblings, are irreparably marked by her single-mindedness.

Boat in Shadows, Crossing by Tori Truslow, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, no 113, Jan 2013.
A tale of infatuation and betrayal with indeterminate gendered folk, and houses that are alive in a city of canals. More fantasy than SF.

Hmmm. I would say that two and a half out of these four stories are more fantastical in nature than SF.

The winners will be announced on Sunday evening during Eastercon.

Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

Penguin, 2000, 333 p + xlvi p of introduction and select bibliography, 10 p of Notes on the Text and 9 p of Variants in different editions. First published 1934.

Tender is the Night cover

Maybe it was due to my impending house removal but I just couldn’t get into this one at all. Alternatively it may be because initially I found the characters flighty and tedious, the dialogue curious. The novel is structured into three books and that too was part of the problem. Book 1 is set on the French Riviera where Dick Diver and his wealthy wife Nicole play host to a succession of vapid individuals. Their idyll is interrupted when nascent film star Rosemary Hoyt turns up at the resort with her mother and Dick is taken with her. In this section a duel between minor characters occurs – for no good reason I could see – and a body is found in a hotel bedroom with no apparent consequences.

However, things picked up in Book II where the narration flashed back to the first meeting of Dick and Nicole when he was a psychologist and she a patient. It immediately occurred to me that this would have been a better place to start the book as the situation and the characters are more interesting. In the notes at the end I discovered this was a revision that Fitzgerald had intended to make for future editions before his death and from 1948 till this Penguin edition the novel did appear with that altered structure.

By Book III the Divers’ marriage disintegrates as Dick takes to drink and Nicole becomes more and more independent.

There were a few bon mots. “A man is vulnerable only in his pride, but delicate as Humpty Dumpty once that is meddled with.” “Doctors, chauffeurs, and Protestant clergymen could never smell of liquor.” “Women marry all their husband’s talents and naturally afterwards are not so impressed with them as they keep up the pretence of being.”

The book’s provenance in the 1920s was apparent in the use of the words negro and nigger and there was a reference to a “gone coon” whatever that was. (A dead duck according to Wikipedia.)

At one point another character says to Dick, “But remember what George the Third said, that if Grant was drunk he wished he would bite the other generals.” Wouldn’t it have been Lincoln who said that? Fitzgerald has also given a band with a Scottish pianist the name The Ragtime College Jazzes of Edinboro. I think not. The repetition in the sentence, “Their fortunes had something to do with a bank in Milan that had something to do with the Warren fortunes,” struck me as clumsy. There was also filagree for filigree.

I did not read the (46 page!) introduction till after the novel and am glad of that as it gave away much of the novel’s driving force. It was also very Marxist in its interpretation, stating that the book was actually about a shift in economic structure from accumulation to reproduction.

Wiki says the Modern Library ranked Tender is the Night as 28th in its hundred best English language novels of the early twentieth century. Evidently there’s something in there but I’m afraid it passed me by.

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

In “A Scots Quair,” Hutchinson, 1966, p. First published 1932. The cover shown is of a Canongate edition.

Sunset Song cover

The Scots Quair trilogy is widely seen as Gibbon’s major work, Sunset Song as one of the most important Scottish novels of the twentieth century. Set in the estate of Kinraddie, in the Mearns area, between Laurencekirk and Stonehaven, where Gibbon lived, the lyrical descriptions of the Mearns countryside speak of a deep attachment to the land.

Sunset Song in the main tells the story of Chris Guthrie, daughter of an overbearing father, John, and a mother, Jean, who is so ground down by childbirth that she kills herself and her young twins when she finds herself pregnant for the sixth time. Kinraddie is said by a new minister of the local kirk, a man called Gibbon, to be “fathered between a kailyard and a bonny brier bush in the lee of a house with green shutters,” despite their being no house with green shutters in the whole of Kinraddie. This of course is the author placing his novel firmly within the ongoing sweep of Scottish literature.

I have read nearly all of Gibbon’s novels – whether originally published pseudonymously as by “Gibbon,” or under his real name of J Leslie Mitchell. Sunset Song and The Speak of the Mearns are the most rooted in his home area, hence liberally sprinkled with Scots words. A prefatory note begs the indulgence of English readers in this regard. (I confess I have only a limited background in Scots – especially of words to do with agriculture – but found a lack of knowledge of precise meanings was not a barrier to comprehension. English or USian readers may beg to differ. However, I understand more modern editions contain a glossary.)

The novel is carefully structured to reflect the phases of Chris’s young life. It has a prelude, “The Unfurrowed Field,” which unfolds the history of and introduces the characters inhabiting the Kinraddie estate, followed by four sections, titled respectively Ploughing, Drilling, Seed-Time and Harvest, then an epilude – a word seemingly coined by Gibbon – also titled “The Unfurrowed Field.”

Kinraddie is depicted as a community that thrives on gossip. That would, in the old Scots phrase, be “minding everybody’s business” (which is in my experience immediately followed by the words “but their own.”) It also thrives on argument. At one point Chris tells her brother, “I don’t believe they were ever religious, the Scots folk. They’ve never really BELIEVED.” The kirk had just been a place to collect and argue, and criticise God.

In Kinraddie people are quick to think the worst of others – and never expect the same will apply to them – but still gather round to help in an emergency. Set in that pre-Great War era when mechanical devices were on the way but a rarity on most farms – though the small size of the holdings in Kinraddie make them more like crofts – life is hard and opportunities for harmless pleasure few, and savoured. The number of pages given over to Chris’s wedding (where everyone musical, and some who are not, give their party pieces or provide accompaniment to the dancing and Chris herself sings that great Scottish lament The Flowers of the Forest) – even though it did coincide with the arrival of a New Year – serves to highlight this. On music Chris reflects, “how strange was the sadness of Scotland’s singing, made for the sadness of the land and sky in dark autumn evenings, the crying of men and women of the land who had seen their lives and loves sink away in the years.”

In Harvest, all is ripped apart by the impact of the Great War. Not only are relationships within the community slowly eroded, the woods which protect the land are cut down to make aeroplanes and the like, and several young men do not come back from France. As its title implies the novel is a eulogy for the lost way of life. In the epilude, at the dedication of the War Memorial, a piper plays the tune of The Flowers of the Forest, the music of which is rendered in the text, a threnody to that now dead past. But the key sentence of the book is perhaps, “Scotland lived, she could never die, the land would outlast them all.” It has, it does, it will.

A couple of phrases appear which are unlikely to feature in a modern novel. After firing the whin bushes Chris’s brother Will is said to be “black as a nigger” and “fit to freeze the chilblains on a brass monkey” is nowadays usually expressed more scatologically. Yes, Sunset Song is a novel of its time – but it is also not of it. The Scotland that Sunset Song depicts may be no more, the people it describes are not.

The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirowsky

Chatto & Windus, 2013, 216 p. Translated from the French Les Chiens et les Loups by Sandra Smith. First published by Éditions Albin Michel, 1940.

The Dogs and the Wolves cover

Of the four Némirowsky novels I have now read this is the one that most engages with the Jewish experience. As in The Wine of Solitude the narrative starts in Ukraine (once again the text has “the” Ukraine) and later shifts to France but the parallels of the main character here, Ada Sinner, with Némirowsky’s own life are less close.

Ada is born into that stratum of Ukrainian society not quite in the ghetto but not elevated from it. Her father is a trader and moves between the milieu. As a girl she catches sight one day of her rich relative Harry and is instantly fascinated. When the inevitable pogrom comes she flees with her cousin Ben and ends up in the richer part of town where the pair temporarily throw themselves on the mercy of their richer cousins, who are horrified by this sudden arrival disrupting their cosy existence.

Years later, in Paris, Ada, now an artist, sketching a party at Harry’s house from afar, mislays the payment for seamstressing work she is taking back to her Aunt Raissa, who throws her out. Ben, besotted with her since childhood, proposes that they marry. Despite her lack of love for him, Ada agrees. On the eve of Harry’s wedding Ada contrives to give him a book in which she knows he’s interested. He in turn is intrigued by her paintings in the book shop window. Eventually they meet as adults and the consequences unfold.

While life in Paris is less on the edge than in Ukraine the sense all the Jewish characters have of never being more than one step away from disaster is brought across firmly. In Ukraine a refrain when any adverse event – drought, famine, disease, political rumblings – occurred the adults would say, “We’re in for it this summer…. or this month, this year, tomorrow,” which I must say is also a very Calvinist, and therefore Scottish, sentiment.

The writing contains the usual bon mots. In one of her father’s trading conversations Ada overhears a nice variation on “fell off the back of a lorry,” in, “What would you say to a batch of ladies’ hats from Paris, just a tiny bit damaged from a railway accident?” Musings during a child’s invented game included, “The grown-ups would be only too happy to be free of all the children! Well didn’t they hear their parents moaning endlessly?” The text also contained aperçus such as, “With that knowing feminine instinct that can aim straight at the vulnerable place in a man’s heart she had sought, and found, the worst insult,” and, of Aunt Raissa’s style in argument, we learn, “Unfortunately she had one fault that was common in women: she loved winning.”

Némirowsky, it seems, never disappoints.

In addition it was again pleasing to see Sandra Smith’s translation, which never felt awkward, utilising the grammatically correct use of whom. “Whom could she turn to? Whom could she beg for help?”

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

Gollancz, 2013, 419 p.

My fourth BSFA Award book out of this year’s five. Aren’t libraries wonderful? The Adjacent is also on the Clarke Award list.

Over the course of the last two decades or more Christopher Priest has been exploring various themes to do with the nature of illusion and reality. Recurring preoccupations have been photographers, doppelgängers, the Second World War, stage magic, the strange world of the Dream Archipelago. He returns to all of these in The Adjacent.

In the mid twenty-first century, photographer Tibor Tarent’s wife Melanie has disappeared from the field hospital in Anatolia where she was working and to where he had accompanied her in a misguided attempt to stop their marriage crumbling. She is presumed dead. He returns to what, from the descriptions of women’s clothing, the habitual greetings of its inhabitants and its designation as part of a Kalifate, is presumably the Islamic Republic of Great Britain but is only ever referred to as the IRGB. (The provenance of this political entity is never satisfactorily explained. It seems somewhat gratuitous, the novel would work as well without it.) A strange new weapon whose deployment is accompanied by a bright light is making whole areas disappear, flattened, leaving only a triangular crater. London has been badly hit. It was an event like this in which Melanie disappeared.

Tommy Trent is a stage magician drafted in by the Royal Naval Air Service to help make their aeroplanes “invisible” during the Great War. On his way to France he meets one Herbert George Wells. What this section contributes to the overall picture beyond allowing considerations of the craft of stage magic – distraction, misdirection, hiding in plain sight and so on – is moot. It could, of course, be a distraction itself.

The progenitor of the Perturbative Adjacency Field, Thijs Rietveld, is interviewed at his home. Almost incidentally a Tibor Tarent is the photographer for this project. Rietveld seems to be able to make a conch shell appear and disappear at will. He explains the effects of a perturbative adjacency field to the reporter.

Michael Torrance, an aircraftman at a Second World War bomber base in Lincolnshire, meets a Polish woman member of the Air Transport Auxiliary who relates her life history up to the point where she had to leave Poland due to the German invasion.

On the Dream Archipelago island of Prachous there is a camp city called Adjacent which no-one is supposed to know about or visit. Tomak Tarrant journeys through this with an emigmatic woman known as The Spreader of the Word. Also on Prachous, Thom the Thaumaturge finds a young female assistant for his stage act. This helps him to secure a week of performances at ‘The Grand Aviator Palace.’

Nothing in this book is as it appears. Similar events occur to, similar things are said by, different people in different times and different places. Characters are mistaken for other people. What at first seem to be the same events as seen from different perspectives turn out differently, names are subtly altered, transitions from location to location can occur at times without a mechanism while at others there is one. Not a straightforward read then.

Everything here is all very accomplished and worked out. Priest undeniably writes like a dream. But.

Is it all just smoke and mirrors?

There are two ways of looking at this. One is to say that this is a writer at the height of his powers demonstrating the arbitrariness and unknowability of the world. Another is to question if this is the spectacle of an author writing his cake and eating it. In particular, the drawing in of the Dream Archipelago to The Adjacent, as if in an attempt to bring all of Priest’s recent fiction into a linked whole, may have been a misstep. The Archipelago is certainly a reflection of our world and therefore illuminates it, but it is also distanced from it. The connection with it that Priest establishes here renders it somehow more prosaic.

Priest is, though, an author of considerable gifts and insight, not to mention a searching intelligence. He is entitled to the benefit of any doubt.

All writing is the creation of illusions. As readers we like to think we can penetrate the mist in which they are wrapped. The Adjacent suggests that mist might be all there is.

Pedant’s corner:-
Span count 1 – though there was a spun on the same page – and signs of catering to the US market (fit for fitted, Kalifate for Caliphate.)

Murder by the Book by Eric Brown

Crème de la Crime, 2013, 218 p.

After a myriad of SF books and stories this is the author’s first foray into straight detective fiction. I don’t read very much in the crime genre but this one worked for me. Partly that was the result of the old-fashioned, and welcome, feel of the story, which can be read as an homage to the golden age of detective fiction.

We are in the 1950s. Donald Langham is a writer of detective stories with a good relationship with his patrician agent, the florid of speech Charles Elder, and an unstated affection for Elder’s more than competent secretary Maria Dupré, the daughter of a French diplomat. The murders of the title have started before the narrative does but we do not learn this till later. The first crime we read about is the blackmailing of Elder for gross indecency with a rent boy. Before he settled down to writing Langham had previous experience of detecting so he offers to investigate and find the blackmailer. Things do not go easily and it is not long before Maria has to make a contribution to the endeavour. Meanwhile it emerges that writers of detective stories are dying or being murdered in ways that nag at Langham’s mind. The plot bowls along, with plenty twists and turns and the narrative incorporates both the camaraderie and the resentments of crime writers.

Keen observers of Brown’s previous works will notice certain resonances in the text, especially in the nascent and building relationship between Langham and Maria, which at times has more than a feel of Brown’s “Starship Seasons” quartet of novellas, among others.

In an article in the Guardian Review on Saturday 8th March John Banville identified an “unacknowledged but vital ingredient of a really satisfying whodunnit: cosiness.” In setting his book in the 1950s Brown has caught that cosiness perfectly. It is, after all, the function of the detective story to set the world to rights.

There is at least one more Langham and Dupré novel to come. I’m looking forward to it.

Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley

Gollancz, 2013, 375 p.

Another BSFA Award ballot book. I didn’t have to go far to find this one. I managed to pick up from one of my local libraries.

Gajananvihari Pilot is part of a family which operates as space salvagers in the decades after an event precipitated by Sri Hong-Owen and known as the Bright Moment. One day their ship, a Mobius ring called Pabuji’s Gift, is hijacked by pirates. Hari escapes with the head of Dr Gagarian, which is supposed to contain files relating to the work he and Aakash, Hari’s father, had been doing to try to understand and replicate the physics of the Bright Moment. The plot revolves around Hari’s search to seek out those responsible for the hijack and to revenge himself on them.

Like the two other books of McAuley’s Quiet War sequence which I have read there is a lot of attention paid to his history of the future. Again, though, the characters seem almost incidental.

The book is riddled with references to SF works of the past including the titles of each of the six sections which make up the novel. This homage may explain its appearance on the BSFA Award ballot.

The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner

Alan Warner enjoyed critical success from his first novel Morvern Callar which was mainly set in a never named West of Scotland seaside town (but clearly identifiable as – indeed an almost undisguised – Oban.) He followed this up with These Demented Lands, The Sopranos and The Man Who Walks. I found all of these well worth reading but not quite fully successful. However his 2006 novel The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven in retrospect worked very well, though I seem to have been excessively grudging about it in my post. I have not yet read The Stars in the Bright Sky from 2010 but his latest, The Deadman’s Pedal, while I have minor quibbles about it, is a very good piece of fiction indeed.

We are once more in Warner’s reimagined Oban. It is 1973 and 15 year old Simon Crimmons, son of the owner of a road haulage firm, is fed up with school and wants to leave. On his last school day, 8th June, (Really? That’s at least three weeks earlier than most of Scotland’s schools break up for the summer) he is awaited at the school gates by Nikki Caine who becomes his girlfriend. However, a few days before their first actual date, out on a walk in the hills he is tantalised by glimpses of Varie, the daughter of the local toff, Andrew Bultitude. Bultitude has the title Commander of the Pass and his family lives in the delightfully named house Broken Moan. Unusually, Bultitudes are buried in the house’s grounds, in glass graves, so that the dead can be seen. The book, apart from a small preamble evoking the sensations of driving a train through the Argyll night, starts off with a scene set in those grounds prior to a 1961 visit from the Queen. Though each chapter is given a date for a title and relates the events of a single day, the chronology isn’t linear. In particular chapter three flashes back to the funeral of a local railway worker in early 1973 where tales are told of a railwayman’s prank which took place on the royal train for that 1961 visit. Without really meaning to Simon ends up being interviewed for a job on the railway as a diesel locomotive driver to replace the deceased. This leads to passages devoted to the art of driving a diesel train – the novel could almost be a primer for that activity. A deadman’s pedal is of course the safety device which ensures that a train cannot be driven if the driver is unconscious – or dead at the controls.

The conversations of 1970s adolescent boys are very well captured, their bluster and crudeness, as is the banter between the railway workers. The parts of the book dealing with the train drivers could be a eulogy to that vanished sense of solidarity and socialism which James Robertson also touched on recently in And The Land Lay Still. A possible intrusion from the twenty-first century comes when staunch union man John Penalty says, “One day there’ll be nae union and they’ll be shovelling the management’s shite from under their arses as it comes out. Then they’ll be told to tip it over their own heids, and they will.” Pretty much a description of present day workplace conditions.

Not that other perspectives are omitted. Simon’s dad has the outlook of a small businessman; he is also a DCM and bar from the North African and Italian campaigns in World War 2, though unlike those who weren’t at the sharp end he is reluctant to speak about his experiences. Andrew Bultitude – as those in his social position do – assumes his own wishes will always prevail.

Warner portrays excellently the more or less stifling experience of growing up in the early 1970s in a West of Scotland town with only one cinema and dodgy television reception – the mysteries of STV are here known to only a few. Curiously, though, he refers to the transmitter mast on the hill above the town as an aerial. However his decision to transliterate part of the West of Scotland dialect by using “should of,” “would of” and “could of” irritated me immensely. More annoyingly he was not always consistent with this. His use of “nut” for the West of Scotland “no” also didn’t feel quite right. While the “t”s in button and so on are not pronounced – it is sounded more like “buh ‘n” – I still often read it as a kernel. It’s a pity too that there were infelicities like Scholl’s for Scholls, Balqhuidder for Balquhidder, calomine for calamine, lay for lie, snuck for sneaked, blaise for blaes. And we had the phrase the Queen of England; which is annoying on several levels. As I exemplified above, in these islands the woman in question is usually referred to simply as the Queen. In addition she is not merely Queen of England but of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia and loads of other places besides. Someone in Simon Crimmons’s shoes would surely have been aware of this.

A back cover puff from the Scottish Review of Books says, “This is the best Scottish fiction since Lanark.” While I wouldn’t go quite so far, The Deadman’s Pedal is, quibbles above notwithstanding, without doubt a superior work. It will be in my best of the year for sure.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2013, 386 p.

I bought this since I suspected it might be on the BSFA Award ballot: and it is. (Only three of this year’s nominees still to read now.)

Breq is a fragment of an Artificial Intelligence, the spaceship Justice of Torren, of which she was once an ancillary of the ship’s Esk level. Ancillaries are bodies captured by the Radchaai in their territorial expansions, implanted with augmentations and enslaved to a ship’s consciousness as military units, in companies named decades, which are themselves subsidiaries of hundreds. (An organisational parallel with Roman armies is obvious.) The book deals with the prelude to and aftermath of Breq’s (or Justice of Torren one Esk’s) sudden isolation from her hundred and ship. She goes on a self-imposed mission to seek out a weapon invisible to Radch technology and then use it against the Lord of the Radch. For most of the book Breq’s story is related in alternating chapters describing respectively the search and the events which led up to her separation from Justice of Torren. Once the two strands unite the narrative is straightforwardly linear. Leckie’s depiction of the multiple consciousness Breq inhabits before her severance is effective but authorially she seemed more at ease when the necessity to deal with it was removed.

One curiosity is that, despite some early asides on problems with languages in which gender assignation is important – and the same person is referred to as he or she at different points – all the characters in Ancillary Justice seem to be female, or at least they read as though they are. This is refreshing even though the usual actions, betrayals etc with which Breq deals are perhaps no different from stories featuring male characters – and it doesn’t affect the tale one whit.

Included at the rear were “Extras” – an “about the author,” an interview with her and a totally unnecessary extract from a book by someone else entirely. Here we find that further stories in this universe are to be forthcoming. I found myself curiously disappointed with this as, while there are unresolved elements, it did not strike me that further exploration of the scenario would be as intriguing as this book is.

Ancillary Justice is the better of the two candidate novels for this year’s BSFA Award I have read up to now. By far.

Pedant’s corner: we had publically for publicly, gasses for gases and a character saying, “one point eleven meters.” It was not the USianism of that meters which grated – there were USianisms throughout despite the British publication imprint. You might as well pronounce the number 231156 as twenty-three eleven fifty-six – which would be all but meaningless. The number 1.11 ought to be transliterated as one point one one. Eleven is a number larger than one: by definition numbers after a decimal point are smaller than one. No number after a decimal point should be described other than by its successive single digits. A writer of SF ought to know such things.

Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz

Black Swan, 2013, 309 p. Translated from the Arabic Al-Sukkariyya by William Maynard Hutchins and Angele Botros Samaan.

Sugar Street cover

Originally published in 1957, this third part of Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy has al-Sayyid Ahmad abd al-Jawad entering old age and so dwells more on the younger members of his family. His children reflect that their youngsters seem to know it all and do not listen to their words of wisdom. ’Twas ever thus. The book takes place in the run up to and during the Second World War so mirrors the First World War setting of Book 1, Palace Walk.

While political events of the times tend to happen in the background, it seems that in this respect Egypt doesn’t change much; indeed one character reflects that tyranny is the nation’s most deeply entrenched malady. Here, hope is raised when King Faruq takes over from his father Fuad, but disillusionment soon sets in. Politicians sell out their principles for power and inspire contempt. The group named herein as the Muslim Brethren (nowadays that “Brethren” is translated as Brotherhood) have become active in the political arena. According to them all answers are to be found in the Qu’ran. “We attempt to understand Islam as God intended it to be: a religion, a way of life, a code of law and a political system.” This is immediately subject to the rejoinder, “Is talk like this appropriate for the twentieth century?” – which is a good question; and more so in the twenty-first. There is also mention of girls in the family not being educated beyond the elementary certificate – not that that was a specifically Egyptian failing in those times.

To illustrate the darker undercurrents at play Mahfouz has a Copt say, “in spite of everything we’re living in our golden age. At one time Shaykh Abd al-Aziz Jawish suggested that Muslims should make shoes of our hides.”

al-Jawad’s grandson Abd al-Muni’m Ibrahim Shawkat is a firm believer while his brother Ahmad Ibrahim Shawkat is a communist. Towards the end both are detained for sedition. The first claims it is because he believes in God, the second asks what, then, his own offence could possibly be, as he doesn’t. Ahmad’s earlier declaration of affection for a female classmate founders on his relative lack of means. “It was amazing that in this country where people allowed emotion to guide their politics they approached love with the precision of accountants.”

Other perceptions include, “Politics is the most significant career open to a person in a society,” “When we’re in love we may resent it, but we certainly miss love once it’s gone,” and, “Life is full of prostitutes of various types. Some are cabinet ministers and others authors.”

Once again the USian translation was prominent, with piasters for piastres, “darn it” as an imprecation, soccer and diapers all intruding on my suspension of disbelief.

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