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18 December 2016 @ 11:50 am
Review of Between Quran and Kafka: West-Eastern Affinities,  
Review of Between Quran and Kafka: West-Eastern Affinities, Navid Kermani, trs. Tony Crawford, English edition Polity Press, 2016

This is a collection of essays, speeches and articles by a German writer and scholar of Iranian extraction. The texts do have connections, notably his standpoint of looking for affinities and influences between Western and Eastern literature, but not all are about literature and they certainly don't add up to a single text with chapters. This is important to note, because neither the back-cover blurb nor the preface makes it clear, and since the two first texts, from the same series of lectures, can in fact be read as if they were the two first chapters of a book, this is confusing. The first appendix, "About the Text", makes it clear, but I don't know about you, I tend to read a book before its appendices.

Apart from the influence of Eastern (mainly Islamic) thought on German literature, which was my main reason for reading the book, other essays deal with terrorism, the refugee crisis, the death of an Iranian friend, the future of Europe and the performance of opera at Bayreuth. Most of them, though, do tend to reference an author somewhere, eg the chapter on refugees (one of the best argued and most telling), which is headed "Towards Europe: Zweig and the Borders". In truth Zweig didn't strike me as vital to the argument, but the text was a speech given at the Burgtheater of Vienna, so I suppose an Austrian author had to come in somewhere. Also it might indicate that Kermani is coming at matters primarily from the standpoint of a literary critic, though his interests are clearly wider and his view, like that of all who own two different cultures, that of a partial outsider.

This can often be an advantage: his reportage in "Towards Europe" is incisive and gripping:
Every night, from my hotel overlooking the port, I heard the dogs of the Moroccan border patrol waiting to catch the children. And yet once in a while a child makes it on board one of the ships, people say; sometimes they just try to hold on to the hull of a ship, in the water. I have no idea how that is supposed to work, but I wouldn't put it past these children to try it. Soon the European Union will be providing Morocco with sensors that detect a heartbeat or body heat. Then the children will have to stop breathing to get to Europe. They would probably try that too.
Among other chapters I found impressive,"Kafka and Germany" addresses the way in which Germany has been shaped less by its ever-changing borders than by language and literature. I don't think he argues it quite as cogently or readably as Neil MacGregor's "Germany", also published this year and reviewed here, but then MacGregor is one of the most readable of writers and doesn't labour the same point over and over as I find Kermani sometimes seems to, just in case the reader has missed it – perhaps this is a habit teachers and lecturers get into. Oh, and the remark (about Thomas Mann lecturing at the Library of Congress) "at the close of the war in the capital of the nation that has conquered Germany" might raise eyebrows, not to say hackles, in Britain and Russia, for two: the USA did it all on their own, did they, despite not actually having entered the war for its first three years? I also found "Revolt Against God" and "Hedayat and Kafka" fascinating, largely because they introduced me to two writers, Fariduddin Attar and Sadeq Hedayat, who were new to me and sound rather like my sort of thing – Attar in particular, a sort of cosmic Persian Eeyore whose The Book of Suffering I must look for.

But as one might expect from a book of disparate texts, I found the quality varied. I have no expertise in dramaturgy, which is perhaps why I can't follow what he is getting at in "Liberate Bayreuth!" As near as I can fathom, he thinks it impossible to act naturalistically while singing, so proposes instead that opera should be performed like oratorio, with the singers making no pretence to "be" whom they represent. I don't think this would actually hold an audience's attention (not a lot of oratorios seem to get staged these days) and I also think he underestimates the audience's capacity to suspend disbelief. As for his further demand that the orchestra be brought out of the pit and up on stage, he's going to need a bigger stage.

I could be doing him an injustice but I think one problem is that he lacks a sense of humour. When he speaks of modern poets, both Arabic and German: "many younger poets seem not to care about the rules and phonetic diversity of literary Arabic […] their recitation is as expressionless and interchangeable as the poetry readings we are familiar with here in Germany", he sounds exactly like a fusty Oxford don harrumphing that these modern chaps have no idea of prosody, and when he asserts that modern German university students "are introduced to longer, more complex works at best in abridged form" because they "have never learned the cultural techniques to comprehend nested sentence structures, rhythmic language, unfamiliar metaphors, intentional ambiguity", I'm not at all sure I believe him. I know this is not the case in British universities; students may be less sophisticated readers than their predecessors from the pre-TV age, but that can be, and is, addressed at university if it hasn't been at school; it doesn’t mean that Eng Lit students are presented with The Guinea-Pig Pride & Prejudice and I doubt it happens much in Germany.

The main place where a sense of humour would have helped is when, discussing King Lear, he quotes Gloucester's speech to Kent on his, Gloucester's, illegitimate son, who's present at the time:
Though this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for; yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making and the whoreson must be acknowledged.
This sparks off an explosion of tutting in Kermani: "when the father has no qualms about speaking his contempt openly to a third party, this explains and almost justifies the son's feelings of inadequacy that set the crime in motion and seal the father's doom." To my ear, Gloucester clearly speaks these words in a tone of bantering affection, probably while ruffling Edmund's hair (even "whoreson" is surely an Elizabethan version of the modern Geordie endearment "y'bugger"). Granted, the humour is darker than we are used to, but then Elizabethan humour often was. Walter Ralegh could write for his small son ("my pretty knave") a tenderly joshing sonnet about the possibility of naughty little boys ending up on the gallows ("The Wood, The Weed, The Wag"). Lord knows what Kermani makes of that; presumably he'd have had Tudor social services round at Sir Walter's door first thing in the morning, if only they'd been invented.

It is this misunderstanding not of words, but of tone, that sometimes makes me distrust his literary conclusions about works I do not know well, though to be fair, when he discusses Kleist's Penthesilea, which I do know, I wouldn't dissent at all. There is much to interest the reader in these essays; I would avoid the Preface, subtitled A Personal Note, which struck me as self-absorbed and slightly pompous, and get straight into the texts.