THE DARK SIDE OF LOVE
By Rafik Schami
Translated from the Syrian by Anthea Bell
Interlink Publishing, $24, 853 pages
Reviewed by Claire Hopley
Novels from Syria rarely come our way, and novels from the Syrian emigre community of Europe are scarcely more frequent, so Rafik Schami’s “The Dark Side of Love,” first published in Germany where it was a best-seller, comes with preoccupations that are new to most of us.
Its form, however, is a lot like those 19th-century novels that trace their hero’s plight for hundreds of pages, 853 pages in this case. “Loose, baggy monsters” was Henry James’ description of classic English novels. Readers of “The Dark Side of Love” will often feel they are grappling with just such a monster - one that seems to ramble off, even get away, at times.
The novel is framed as a detective tale in which Inspector Barudi seeks to discover the murderer of an important, and, as it turns out, sadistic secret service agent. But Barudi soon fades into the background as the novel focuses on Farid Mushtak and the love of his life, Rana Shahin, before finally coming together as a history of Syria in the middle decades of the 20th century. It’s a history that is rivetingly full of incident, awash in despair, yet not without dignity as exemplified by Farid.
Farid’s life is shaped by the feud between his family, the Roman Catholic Mushtaks and the Orthodox Shahins. At the beginning of the 20th century, both families live in the Christian village of Mala. Their enmity pulls their village co-religionists onto one side or the other. Attempts at pacification lead only to violence. The feud quietens as members of the younger generation move to Damascus, but it never disappears, so when Farid (born 1935) falls in love with Rana he knows that it is impossible for them to marry.
Farid’s father Elias dispatches him to a monastery to be trained for the priesthood. After a grim life of abuse in its walls, he goes on to study chemistry, and briefly becomes a teacher, but his commitment to politics lands him in prison, where torture is a way of life.
Meanwhile, Rana’s family set up her cousin Rami to rape her, and then offer her the option of marrying him or being killed as a dishonored woman. Though absolutely committed to Farid, she chooses marriage.
The love of Farid and Rana takes place against the political backdrop of Syria from around 1920 to 1970. Long an outpost of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came under French control at the end of World War I, and so was not free of colonial power until the French departed nearly 30 years later.
Unhappily, what followed was a bewildering series of coups, mostly initiated by army officers, and inspired by various political beliefs and affiliations with other countries, including, at different times, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Russia. Regardless of their political allegiance, all governments were dispiritingly despotic - as Farid learns under torture during long months in prisons.
The governments’ draconian methods mirror the draconian assertions of power in Syrian family and social life: the hammer of political abuse is wielded by the iron hand of tradition. Marriage and sex is rigidly controlled by families, so rape and sexual humiliation are the stock in trade of the enforcers and torturers who get their hands on men, while the threat of forced marriage hangs over women.
Ironically, George Mushtak, founder of the Mushtak clan, fled to Syria after eloping with the woman he was forbidden to marry, but this does not alter the family’s attitude to Farid’s potential marriage to Rana. George mistreated his son Elias, Farid’s father. Nonetheless, when Elias is not neglecting Farid, he treats him harshly, punishing him mercilessly, often for small infractions.
This is the dark aspect of love pinpointed in the title of Mr. Schami’s novel. But there’s light in his story too. Many chapters record feasts, family visits, outings, historical episodes, and storytellers’ tales - often of tricksters who find ways round authority. These bits and pieces often swing the limelight away from Farid, and Rana disappears for many chapters at a time.
Yet like the scores of paint spots on a pointillist canvas or the myriad colorful pieces of the mosaic described by Mr. Schami in his final chapter, these episodes suggest the shimmer of life, the sheer multiplicity of people and events build the days and weeks and months into history. If one side of Syrian life is adamant, the other is lush with loyal friendships and relationships.
The picture of Syrian life and recent history is the great strength of this novel. Mr. Schami would not have achieved it without considerable skill at evoking both Damascus, one of the world’s most ancient cities, and Mala, the Christian farming village in the mountains, where the Mushtak-Shahin feud got its start and life continues much as it has for centuries.
Mr. Schami’s characters often come alive, sometimes alarmingly so. Politicians, secret agents, sadists and torturers hover horrifyingly over the action. Those flinty men George and his son Elias seem startlingly real.
On the other hand, the women in the book are lively and often fun: Claire, Farid’s mother is gentle but has the strength of steel; Rana is bright and adventurous; Farid’s cousin Laila suggests the determination of some Syrian women to operate in an arena larger than the home or some low-paid workplace.
Characters such as the old seaman Gibran, who has a fund of stories, and Matta, Farid’s unacknowledged half-brother, also leap off the page. Conversely, Farid often acts less than he is acted upon - which is a typical fate of the romantic heroes of all those loose, baggy novels that came before “The Dark Side of Love.”
With its feuds, lovers, murders, villains and assorted heroes and heroines, this is a novel to enjoy and to ponder.
Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.