Saturday, April 28, 2018

NOT FISSA, NOT FUSSY: MORE FASSI AND FIZZY

A review of Through The Peacock Gate by Australian author, journalist and academic, Ken Haley

NOT FISSA, NOT FUSSY: MORE FASSI AND FIZZY

By Ken Haley

Unlike the jailbird who refuses the governor’s offer of conjugal relations with his wife because he doesn’t want to end his sentence with a proposition, I’ll kick off with one: the best of books are several books coexisting under the same cover.

Two cases in point: To Kill a Mockingbird scintillates because it is about family relations (with particular emphasis on the father-daughter bond) and about racial justice. A Tale of Two Cities succeeds by being simultaneously a Dickensian fable and a social history tract on the French Revolution that would have had Edmund Burke nodding (in approval, not off).

Through the Peacock Gate – one of the best books to come my way this year (and I’ve notched up nearly fifty with a third of the year gone, so this is not stinting praise) – is just the book for you if that long-planned escape from an Antipodean winter to Mediterranean climes isn’t going to eventuate this year. The purchase price of getting Sandy McCutcheon’s latest novel shipped from Britain is far less than the cost of sending yourself in the opposite direction, even in the age of the discount airfare.

What’s that you say? You’re not an armchair traveller? Pity. Maybe I could interest you in a tale of spirituality in the so-called 21st century? Of how the present is haunted by the past, of how everything you see and do is not everything there is, not the half of it? Of how the wisdom of the Sufi, a sect that has fascinated and scandalised mainstream Islam for centuries, can inhabit a man transplanted from traditionally Catholic Ireland? …

All right, I can tell a choosy reader when I come across one. I see you’re not interested in romances that rhyme moon and majoun (edible cannabis – aha, now I have your attention!) any more than you revel in tales of djinns and madonnas (living in the materialist world, as you do). If it’s the delightful tickle of lust you’re after, don’t soil your hands with the postmodern equivalent of a penny dreadful: come hither behind the latticework of traditional Moroccan houses in the medina of Fez (where paradoxically you can be high in the Middle Atlas), and not only will you find yourself entranced by a maiden worthy of Nabokov’s pen, you will find the unlikeliest devotee of the Russian-American master waiting to conduct you on a literary tour when your passion for the physical is sated.

While on passions Nabokovian, this is also a work that no lepidopterist’s library should be without.

Ah, but you don’t order books on the wing! Fair enough. Perhaps political thrillers with overtones of 20th-century revolutionary zeal are more to your taste. When painting a tantalisingly foreshadowed encounter with the Shining Path guerrilla movement in the jungles of Peru, McCutcheon’s prose is as pellucid and gripping as Greene’s (think Our Man in Havana).

Then again, if psychology’s your thing, you should dive into these pages for the sensation of losing touch with (or should that be discovering?) reality, sanity and such states so reduced to the conventional in everyday discourse that they’re taken for granted even when least understood.

Or find enough food for thought here to underwrite a philosophical banquet.

On yet another tack, if you’re looking for the last Beat novel to make it into print, this may be it – William S. Burroughs without the drugs.

Surely it’s this mixture of themes and perspectives that give McCutcheon’s new novel its sense of rounded solidity. The worlds you enter here are palpable, with an aura of undeniable credibility generated by the ethereal touches the author has added with all the assuredness and generosity of a lexicographical Titian.

The djinni – printers used to call them gremlins – aren’t always so benign. One that got into the inkpot and drank its fill kept on misspelling “led” (past tense of “to lead”) as if it were the substance they used to put in petrol. (So if you’re into heavy metal this novel has something for you too.) These are blemishes that should be ironed out in the second (lead-free) edition this book so richly deserves.

An enthusiasm for stylistic innovation and blending has been a hallmark of McCutcheon’s previous work as well. In Black Widow, published in the mid-2000s, the author of The Magician’s Son – in which he had written movingly of discovering in middle age that he had a living brother of whose existence he had been oblivious all his life – turned in an account of Russia’s grisly Beslan school massacre as vivid as any breaking-news report from the crime scene itself.

The newest member of McCutcheon’s literary brood shares certain traits you might call family resemblances – never a dull sentence, exquisitely timed plot development, human empathy writ large. If there is one theme he mines better than any this time around, it’s that of square-peg expatriates in the round-hole Maghreb.

When your Irishman, Marcus Brennan (now motoring under the alias of Richard), holds a revealing discussion with his local camel butcher, the artisan’s observations on Western and Japanese tourists as seen through Arab eyes – insightful as they are witty – would be worthy of Mahfouz.

As McCutcheon has lived in Fez for over a decade now, his pen pictures of the expat community there – replete with the odd unappealing Canadian or image-obsessed American – are no doubt drawn from the life and are bound, in at least a few cases, to earn him the café-table solitude he must sometimes covet.

Serious though its themes frequently are, humour lives here too: when Richard meets Jonathan, an American visiting Fez, our hero spots that he’s a student at Fuller Theological Seminary. Momentarily convinced he’s in the presence of a mind reader, Jonathan blurts out: ‘How did you …?’ to which Richard replies, deadpan: ‘It’s on your cap, Jonathan.’

The novel’s cover design, full of swirling and whirling kinetics instantly enticing the reader into a world of Islamic and pre-Islamic figures, is the work of Bryan Dawe, whose role as straight guy to another gifted Kiwi, the late John Clarke, immortalised them both in the Australian TV-viewing public’s mind – the part of it that has a mind, at any rate.

With the technology we have literally at our fingertips these days, I suppose it would be easier to scroll up, delete the first line of this review’s third paragraph and type it out afresh. But that would be to reckon without this reviewer’s love of laziness. So let me instead stop here and issue a correction: like the city in which it is set, Through the Peacock Gate, with its multiple avenues of significance, is not simply one of the best books to come my way this year. It’s several.

The reviewer Ken Haley
Ken Haley is a twice-published author and Walkley Award winner whose first career as a journalist introduced him to many newsdesks, from the famous Dimboola Banner to the also quite well-known Times, Sunday Times, Independent and Observer in London, the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, Johannesburg's Star (guess where!) and the Gulf Daily News of Bahrain. Now six years into his second career as a part-time academic, he is currently teaching Master's students in a course of his own device at the Centre for Advancing Journalism in the University of Melbourne. Ken, whose travels have taken him to 134 countries, harbours fond memories of Morocco where, in palmier days, he appeared in Casablanca. (As well as Marrakech, Rabat and Fez.)

Where to buy a copy:
The Arabic Language Institute in Fez,
2 Rue Ahmed Hiba, Fes, Ville Nouvelle 30000
Beacon Books (UK)
Amazon (USA)
Amazon (AUS)


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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a great review!
An enthused novella in itself overflowing with compliments and placing you in such esteemed company - Nabokov, Bowles & Mehfuz - al hamdullilah.
Barak la afek
Tabakal alik sidi

Sandy McCutcheon said...

Thank you! I loved the review that suggested this may be the last "Beat" novel!