What does one do when one has decided that four hours or more in a synagogue on Jewish New Year is beyond what one can take at this particular stage in one’s life? Well, besides visiting friends and relatives and eating far too much, one can sit at home and read.
This year, I managed two novels—both of them novels and not works of history although either might have been perceived as just that. The one, The Vixen, by Francine Prose is based on the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were sent to the electric chair in 1953 for passing American atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The story centres around Ethel and is told by a young Jewish editor for a New York publishing company, a Harvard graduate refused a recommendation by his Harvard mentor to pursue graduate studies at the University of Chicago, and who has been given the job of editing a dreadfully conceived and awfully written novel about the affair, which, he discovers was composed by his uncle, his boss’s secretary, and his boss, who is a CIA operative, as was his Harvard mentor. He — and the woman who was to become his wife and who had been formerly employed by the same publisher—both believe that Ethel was set up and are amazingly given a free hand by the authors to edit (i.e., rewrite) the novel and manage to have it published in its re-written form to the ire of the CIA and the detriment of the publishing house, which is forced to destroy remaining copies of the book and eventually goes bankrupt . Compulsive reading and all 319 pages read in a single day. Ann Sebba’s new biography of Ethel, the woman executed allegedly for espionage, now awaits.
The second novel of the holiday season, by Elif Shafak, someone who has become one of my favourite authors, was her latest, The Island of Missing Trees. It is a novel about a “mixed marriage” involving two Cypriots, Defne, a Turkish Muslim woman and Kostas, a Greek Orthodox man, who have lived in London with their 16-year old daughter, Ada, born when they were in their 40s. As the story develops, one learns that they were two teenage lovers who would meet at a taverna owned by a gay couple, one Greek and the other Turkish, the only place in Nicosia where they could meet in secret and in the centre of which, growing through a cavity in the roof, is a fig tree. And as the story develops, Kostas flees to London in 1974 at the outbreak of the inter-communal violence on the island and the invasion of Northern Cyprus by the Turkish army, compelled to do so by his mother, who has already lost two sons that year. He leaves only to return after a 25 year absence as an academic botanist of some repute where he meets Defne again.
But it is the fig tree that witnesses their hushed meetings and their silent, clandestine departures and the fig tree is there, too, when civil war breaks out in 1974 and Nicosia is reduced to rubble, and when the teenage romance suddenly ends. But almost 30 years later, Kostas the botanist returns, looking for native species but really searching for Defne who he finds through a mutual acquaintance and they decide to marry and to live in London. The taverna has been destroyed but the fig tree remains and they return to take a clipping from the fig tree, put it into their suitcase and smuggle it bound for London. Years later, the fig tree in the London garden is the only knowledge that Ada has of a home she has never visited, as she seeks to untangle years of her parents’ secrets and silence and find her place in the world. In this, she is helped by the arrival for a visit in London of Meryem, her mother’s recently divorced elder sister who takes it upon herself to inculcate her heritage into her niece’s consciousness.
Much of the story is related by the fig tree and that is what makes the story magical, for the fig tree has heard and seen everything over a period of almost half a century, and in the course of doing so describes all the living things that have visited the tree over the years — butterflies and moths, mice and birds— and discusses the differences between fig trees and other tree species, asking the question in one way or another of whether plants as well as animals have memories. For that is what this book is about. It’s a novel about memory and remembering, just as Ms. Shafak’s previous book, 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World, about a murdered sex worker in Istanbul whose body was found in a filthy bin by a group of four scavenging teenagers, is in the end a book about friends and friendship.
However, on the first page of the book, as I started to read, I sat up quite suddenly. This was because, in another life, I was a geographer and I wish I could have written what Elif Shafak managed to write in just 61 words:
“A map is a two-dimensional representation with arbitrary symbols and incised lines that decide who is to be our enemy and who is to be our friend, who deserves our love and who deserves our hatred and who, our sheer indifference.
Cartography is another name for stories told by winners.
For stories told by those who have lost, there isn’t one.”
The Island of Missing Trees is such as well-constructed story and is beautifully written. Every now and then, there is something that the reader reads that either strikes a chord or that you’d never thought of before, such as this, which appears on p.34:
“It is a curse, an enduring memory. When elderly Cypriot women wish ill upon someone, they don’t ask for anything blatantly bad to befall them. they don’t pray for lightning bolts, unforeseen accidents or sudden reversals of fortune. They simply say: ‘May you never be able to forget. May you go to the grave still remembering.’“
And now from the sublime to the ridiculous.
One morning last week, listening to the BBC news headlines on Radio 4, we got the following story after which I discovered that it had also appeared in the newspapers. In the Sunday Times, it appeared under the headline: “Too much sausage, not enough dog” and it concerned the announcement from the Kennel Club, that arbiter of standards in the canine world, that as dachshunds have become more popular, their sausage-shaped bodies and stubby legs are getting too long and they are moving too close to the ground as they are being being bred shorter and longer, presumably to meet popular demand. As a result of this lack of canine consideration on the part dog breeders, guidance has been updated with the Kennel Club providing new rules to breeders in order to give the sausage dogs more ‘ground clearance’. So if dachshunds had been suffering, they need suffer no longer. Help is on the way!
And then I decided that even if I am not in synagogue, I might one day be called upon to blow a shofar, a ram’s horn, an instrument which is tootled several times during the synagogue service on Jewish New Year. I once tried to get a sound from a clarinet and failed miserably so I thought a master-class might be due—and as a result of my search and research, I have been schooled in the art of shofar-blozzing.