Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Rowan Somerville's "The End of Sleep": Book Review

Cairo's outer limit, Mara village around the Pyramids, and its teeming inner density both find Fin, an ex-pat Irish journalist, getting not much shut-eye during his adventures. Told in a rather appealingly old-fashioned register, yet one that pulses with contemporary menace and even hints of American geopolitical relevance, this novel by a London-born, Edinburgh-educated, Irish resident shows lots of promise. The scenes in which Fin must try to rescue his friend Farouk from the clutches of Omar, the evil dwarf and kebab king, blend terror and humor with vim and vigor.

The omniscient voice controls Fin's take on the manic events that envelop him after he seeks a resolution to the shaggy-dog tale Farouk begins about a neighboring rogue, Skinhead Said. Fin's so eager to find out more he nearly dies in the attempt. His inability to go with the flow of the Middle East, his Western impatience, serves to entangle him within events even at the novel's closing we don't fully comprehend. Early on, Fin wants a different narrative for himself: "His life should be a pacy linear narrative, with obvious and satisfying climaxes." (28) Yet,
"Farouk was not one to be led along linear narrative lines, or led at all. He would reveal details randomly, the way fragments of antiquity might appear over time, scattered over a vast area, tantalising generations of archaeologists. Fin was intrigued by the story, attracted to it in a way he did not understand, any more than a jackdaw understands the call of shining metal or a moth the fire." (30)
Later on, after an assault by Omar's thug, Fin realizes that "his life was still without direction, without even the story he had decided would save him." (86) Part of this can be his frustration at not knowing Skinhead Said's story, but part can be attributed to his own feckless tendencies, which spur him towards acts of kindness towards a mangy cur, a girl in a hospital ward, or a rescuer in the form of a garbage collector. They also lure him into danger, and threaten his companion's life.

Much of this novel's appeal lies in the setting. I found the passages about the desert less affecting than those of the city, but both share, as Somerville describes well, the same foundation. Is it a half-built house or a antiquarian ruin? Walking around Cairo, Fin reflects:
"It was the chorus of deterioration. Rubble everywhere, modern dwellings leaning upon ancient monuments like card houses, tower blocks riddled with cracks or collapsed, listing minarets and mosque walls severed by vertical canyons of subsidence. Age stood whispering impermanence, calling to Fin that, flawed as he was, insignificant as he was, history was woven out of tiny threads of life like him but that he too would decay and crumble." (98-99)
This story mixes philosophical leisure with breakneck flight. The smells of the fetid Nile mingle with skewered lamb spiced perfectly. Life and death collide suddenly. There's a shock of recognition of mortality. Fin in one splendidly paced episode taking shelter in a hospital ward, witnesses open-heart surgery.
"Fin saw in front of him the visceral physicality that pumped beneath everything. Whatever triumphs or catastrophes, love, disappointment or terrors he fantasised were important, his heart would beat, never despairing as he did, keeping up this vital kenesis, and when it stopped everything would cease. This was fact. Everything else was merely an idea." (143)
Such raw material sharpens Fin's awareness; it breaks through his pampered, lazy, half-plumbed awareness. While the last sections of this novel slacken the pace of the pursuit, and I found them less engrossing, their languor may be a calculated easing of the tension of the plot, allowing the slower gait to catch Fin and ease his scurrying about the city. Out of it, back in Mena village, he must face the vista that forces him to pause and wait rather than flee and rush.
"Farouk's roof was the axis, between the city-- the noise in Fin's head, the desperate urgency to find or do something-- and the desert, empty, vast and still. Sand everywhere, from the flaking stone of the roof, cracked and layered with tiny grains of loose rubble. Even the solid rock was made of the sand, no more than that. Sand, which by natural alchemy had consented to be formed for a time into stone, and then fashioned into buildings and cities by men, before losing its enchantment, its magical gregariousness, and like any magic or idea, disintegrating, reverting to its chaotic nature in the desert." (172)
Out of the frenzy of the city, away from the stimulation of the West, Fin must force himself into a more nuanced recognition of who he is. Somerville handles this, as with the dénouement of Skinhead Said's legendary exploits, with a touch of enigmatic craftsmanship. It's a testament to Somerville's ambition that he can fashion a novel both of the moment and one that hearkens back to a timeless storytelling long before the West was known by the East, or vice versa.

(Review posted to Amazon US 11/12/08.)

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