A German-Middle Eastern Tale

One difficult aspect about living in Kraków as a half-Pole, yet often feeling like an expatriate even after 20-plus years in this place, is that it’s hard to link up with other English-speaking book lovers such as myself. If I were back in Britain it would be easy. I’d probably be a member of two or maybe even three different book clubs right now, exchanging ideas and thoughts and criticisms and praise. But here? Not so easy. There’s the expatriate women’s book club, of course, but seeing as that mainly consists of mothers from the British school where I work, as well as from two other competitor international schools, I don’t feel all that inspired to attend.

So what I eventually did, just a couple of months ago, was to be brave and try out a Polish book club that someone recommended to me. But here’s the thing. This particular book club consists of members who are German literature pundits: all the novels they select are originally written in German, then Polish translations are found, ordered, and dispatched to Kraków. So it’s quite a linguistic challenge, to say the least! Recently I found myself reading their latest chosen German novel in Polish, discussing it with my fellow bookish aficionados also in Polish, and thinking and writing about it in English. Quite taxing on the brain all round! But I’m not complaining. At least I’ve finally found a home in a book club, language apart!

The most recent brain-taxing book we reviewed was a debut novel by the young German writer, Pierre Jarawan. The original title is “Am Ende Bleiben Die Zedern”, which means ‘In the End the Cedars Remain’. The Polish title is “W Krainie Cedrow”, which translates as ‘In the Land of the Cedars’. And the English title is “The Storyteller”. See what I mean by brain-taxing? Especially considering that the first part of our reading group discussion last week concentrated solely on the title. But which title? I found myself asking. They’re all different! Personally, I like the English one best, because I think it most accurately depicts the essence of the novel.

So what is the essence of this intriguing novel? Well, being written by someone who was born in Jordan to a Lebanese father and German mother, and whose family emigrated to Germany when he was just three, one of the main questions he poses throughout is: where are we from and who are our people? Not only in terms of country or religion, but also in terms of family. It’s about searching for one’s identity, one’s routes, and also unravelling the damage that family – supposedly a safe haven – can do to us.

Pierre Jarawan has been highly acclaimed as a shining new talent, and to a large extent I can see why. The novel is charming, evocative and earnest. It’s essentially about a boy, Samir, whose father walks out of the family home one day when Samir is seven, and never comes back. It’s about how this traumatic event adversely shapes the next twenty years of Samir’s life – until at last, inspired by his fiancé, he makes the bold decision to go to the Lebanon himself in search of his father, Bramin. Samir is utterly convinced that this is where Bramin must have returned, having fled his homeland during the civil war many years earlier, yet never stopped yearning for it. But when Samir, now a twenty-something fired by a new determination, sets off on his quest to Beirut, helped only by an old photograph, an old journal, and memories of his father’s stories, things do not turn out in the least how either Samir or the reader expects. But I’ll say no more about the ending, not wanting to drop in any spoilers.

The novel continually switches between the past in Germany, where we follow the upbringing of young Samir, and the present in Beirut, where he is on a seemingly impossible trail of his father. For me personally, the charm of the book is threefold: 1) in the extremely close, loving relationship that is depicted between father and son in the past; 2) in the stories that the father relates to young Samir as a child – all of which later provide clues as to Bramin’s whereabouts; and 3) in the evocative descriptions of the beauty and vitality of Beirut and its environs. The descriptions of the Lebanese district in the German town where the family lives are also expertly done, providing the reader with a truly sensory experience. Right from page one I felt that I was part of that bustling street, hearing the sounds of Arabic and smelling the enticing aromas of the Middle East.

Jarawan also succeeds in weaving together a very captivating and gripping storyline, as well as portraying real, flesh and blood characters. He’s an expert at dropping in crucial hooks here and there, some almost casually, others in strategic places such as the end of a chapter. I desperately wanted to know what happened to the father – whether or not Samir would succeed in finding him, and if so, what would happen then? That feeling of urgency and compulsion ran throughout the book, so the author can certainly be lauded for being every bit as skilled a storyteller as his elusive character of Bramin.

Where I believe Pierre Jarawan was not as successful was in trying to educate the reader about the history and politico-religious struggles of the Lebanon. These particular sections suddenly transformed into mini-lectures, which disrupted the flow of the narrative and left me in danger of switching off. I think the author would have been better just giving bare-essential knowledge and leaving it up to the reader whether or not they wish to find out more information from other sources. However, luckily there weren’t too many ‘lecture’ passages, and they did not diminish my overall enjoyment of the novel.

To sum up, I’d say that ‘The Storyteller’ is a truly fascinating novel, and one which has inspired me to go the Lebanon. Maybe I’ll even meet Bramin there myself one day!

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