Review – Rafik Schami – The Calligrapher’s Secret (trans. Anthea Bell)

This review was originally published on the Quarterly Conversation website in 2011.  The website no longer exists, so I have decided to extract it from there and publish it here.

Hamid Farsi, arguably Damascus’ greatest calligrapher, returns home one night to discover that his beautiful wife, Noura, has vanished. A number of priceless texts containing the secrets of calligraphy have disappeared along with her. Farsi suspects wrongdoing—and accuses the wrong man. In his rage he murders this man and winds up in jail, spending the dying days of Shukri al-Quwatli’s reign completing lavish commissions for the ruler’s coterie of friends, allies, and business associates in exchange for preferential treatment. The calligrapher, arrogant, exacting, and ambitious, seeks to reform Arabic script in order to modernise the language and, hopefully, the culture.

While suitably dramatic, these events comprise the very last moments of Rafik Schami’s 444-page novel, The Calligrapher’s Secret. Much of the text takes place in the preceding years, alternating between the Christian Noura, an ethereally beautiful young woman who wishes to read books and escape her parents, and the jug-eared Muslim Salman, whose naivety sees him exploited by parents, friends, and passers-by. While the two move from child- to adulthood they are introduced to various aspects of life in Damascus, acting as travel-diary surrogates for the reader and allowing Schami to create a selective, though at times effective, panoramic view of the turmoil afflicting Syria during the early and mid-1950s.

Schami’s novel is split into two unequal sections, titled “The First Kernel of the Truth” and “The Second Kernel of the Truth,” with these bracketed by an epilogue and prologue. The first section deals with Salman and Noura, who don’t know each other and hardly meet until near the section’s end, when they fall in love; the second section tells the story of Hamid Farsi, the great calligrapher and Noura’s uncompromising husband. Each section is sufficiently unrelated that, were the names of the characters to change, they could easily function as separate novels, and it is with this realisation that the novel’s shaky foundation begins to crack.

The initial protagonists, Noura and Salman, are defined as neatly and flippantly as above, and though they remain the primary focus for much of the work, Schami’s characterisation of them fails to extend beyond, in Noura’s case, the beautiful, bookish, unhappy newlywed, and in Salman’s the naive, provincial, insipid errand boy. During the 206 pages before the two meet they each go on an extended, decade-long tour through Damascus’ slums, Noura acting as our surrogate for the Muslim areas, and Salman the Christian. The people they meet exist purely within the confines of the paragraph or chapter they are encountered, and their lives and occupations are outlined as pleasantly and non-controversially as a tourist’s guidebook. Behold the poor cafe owner, behold the secretly gay butcher, behold the decrepit fortuneteller, behold the fried vegetable and falafel vendor. Blink and you’ll miss them, and it won’t matter much if you do.

On top of this, Schami takes great paints to drain the novel of any tension by continuously and explicitly foreshadowing the plot’s conclusion, as well as the fate of the characters. Sentences such as, “Later Salman was to say that the turning point in his life, the moment that made him a calligrapher, had been on a certain evening in January of the year 1956,” and “He had no idea how little time he had left,” appear often, occurring either directly before or after a significant event. Schami is unable to write the in-between parts of a novel; when the plot isn’t rushing toward its ill-defined goal it either wallows in endless detail about areas or people who don’t matter to the story and won’t appear again, or it skips years, filling in any important events through flashback. Worse, Schami has a habit of killing off supplementary characters as soon as the conflict they are involved with is complete, either by afflicting them with cancer and despatching them in a paragraph, or having them simply run away from Damascus.

The Calligrapher’s Secret is a literary soap opera without a central conceit. A novel propelled not by characters—for these people are like billiard bills, sent hurtling in a straight line, single-minded in their trajectory and uncaring as to the location or speed of any of the other balls until they collide and spring away from one another – but by events. The characters need a goal to travel toward, some grand ambition that interlocks or conflicts with the desires of the others. Of the three primary characters, only Hamid Farsi has a destination beyond the tip of his own nose, and he doesn’t appear as a proper protagonist until well into the last third of the novel.

The second section of the novel contains its best writing, plotting, and characterization, and it all centres around calligraphy. The art form, we learn, “has a magical effect on an Arab.” It has granted Hamid Farsi great wealth and status, which allow him to rub shoulders with the political and intellectual elite. But Farsi wishes to reform the script, seeking to remove superfluous characters and introduce newer, more modern and flexible additions to calligraphy to ensure that Islam and the Arabic world are capable of keeping up with the increasingly rich and powerful West.

The possession of, and appreciation for, calligraphy is seen as a status symbol and an indication of culture. Schami writes:

If you want to go carefully about making music with the letters, the empty space between letters and words calls for even greater skill. The blank spaces in a work of calligraphy are moments of rest. And as in Arabic music, calligraphy too depends on the repetition of certain elements that encourage not only the dance of body and soul but also our ability to move away from the earthly domain and rise to other spheres.

But the conservative forces of Islam are very powerful, and the school Farsi has recently begun is attacked by “The Pure Ones,” a group unable to accept any changes to the art of calligraphy. Their reasoning is that if the script was good enough for the Prophet, then it should be good enough for Farsi, an infinitely less important figure. Farsi, were he able, could explain to the Pure Ones that the various scripts used had been significantly updated in the intervening centuries; but, as is often the case, it is not logic or reason that prevails here.

With the intrusion of the Pure Ones, Farsi’s disappeared wife, the political upheaval of the late 1950s in Syria and the abrupt inclusion of murder, Schami’s novel slips into a pleasing melodrama. As noted above, a literary soap opera requires drama, tension, and excitement, and it is during this second section that Schami is able to provide the suitable ingredients. Coupled with this, the extended digressions on calligraphy function as a metaphor for Islamic society in general, and it is clear that while Schami harbours a deep love for and appreciation of Islamic culture, he is able to clearly perceive its tendency toward stagnation.

It is an oddity of the text that as soon as Salman and Noura – ostensibly the love story of the novel, and by far its largest focus – have disappeared, The Calligrapher’s Secret becomes quite enjoyable. The trouble of the Christian and Muslim relationship is never adequately dealt with, and it is a testament to Schami’s lack of craft that he is unable to do anything with the pair once they have openly declared their love other than have them vanish from the text entirely (only to reappear in a weakly connected epilogue). But Noura’s disappearance is essential, as it provides Hamid Farsi with the impetus to set events in motion that will allow the author to direct his attention toward the previously buried themes of the novel, explicitly tackling subjects instead of glossing over them.

The Calligrapher’s Secret seems to have been written with both eyes toward the Western audience. Far too much of the text is taken up with travelogue style writing, and the love story flatly does not work. The sections on calligraphy, which increase in duration and frequency as the text progresses, are expertly handled, and the use of the art form as a metaphor for Islam is superb. But this is a flabby novel, poorly told and loosely felt. The only time any of the characters even come close to affecting is when Hamid Farsi bends over his work desk, dips his reed pen into his ink, and writes. The rest is forgettable.

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