States of Passion by Nihad Sirees translated by Max Weiss
He’s grudgingly invited indoors by a taciturn butler and, once in dry clothes, receives a warmer welcome from the owner, an elderly man who has turned his back on city life. Over the next five days, as rain continues to pour outside, Shaykh Nafeh tells him the story of how he came to live in such an isolated spot.
His story begins in September 1936, with a beautiful young peasant woman alighting from the Orient Express at Aleppo station, along with, but separate from, a delegation of Syrian nationalists and politicians returning from a successful diplomatic mission to France. Widad, the woman, becomes a dancer with the binat al-ishreh, a community of women who live, love and make music together, performing at weddings and at all-female parties where women, married to men, are free to pair up and make love.
Gradually, it becomes clear that not only is the old man part of this story, but the butler too. While Nafeh is keen to talk, only his fragile health holding him back, Ismail, his servant, insists the story should not be told. In fact, so adamant is he, he threatens to kill our narrator, and almost does, if he refuses to leave. But his fascination with the story and compassion for the old man, as well as the appalling weather, keeps him hooked.
States of Passion is this exiled Syrian author’s second novel translated from Arabic by Max Weiss and published by Pushkin Press, who provided my proof copy. Although I wouldn’t have risked my own life to hear Widad’s story, I enjoyed learning about the ways Syrian women managed to forge their own paths in a male-dominated culture.
Murmur by Will Eaves
The opening section of Will Eaves’ fifth novel – which I first read when it was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award – displays the bones of Alan Turing in the mind and body of his character Alec Pryor. Alec confides to his journal his speculations on “thinking machines” and early digital computers, and memories of Christopher, his much-loved friend from boarding school who died in his late teens. He also writes about the circumstances leading to his arrest – on the day of the death of the King (1952) – for “gross indecency” and sentencing to a year of weekly hormone injections and fortnightly meetings with a psychoanalyst, Anthony Stallbrook, his honours for World War II code-breaking proving no protection from institutional homophobia.
Will Eaves eschews the easier fictional flesh of character (an establishment insider becoming an outsider) and plot (Turing died mysteriously of cyanide poisoning about a year after the completion of his hormone treatment) for the more challenging (for reader and writer) territory of the nature of consciousness. Am I still me if my body changes? Is a machine capable of thinking? Can we know our own minds if we must use the mechanics to reflect on the contents? Could we ever think another’s thoughts? How do we know if what we experience is real? Despite my background in psychology (and mathematics too), I can barely formulate the questions, never mind supply the answers.
The longer middle section of the novel is a series of dreams partly interpreted within letters to and from a former colleague and fiancé. The author’s alter ego as a published poet is apparent in the beautiful language, but I often found myself adrift, unsure what, within the fictional world he’d created, was meant to be real. Thus the experience of reading itself becomes a question of human consciousness, albeit one that felt beyond my bear brain.
Although Alec’s therapist appears in his dreams, we don’t see much of him in action beyond the opening section. However, consistent with a report of Alan Turing’s relationship with his therapist, Anthony Stallbrook, he doesn’t stick rigidly to therapeutic boundaries, although he does annoy Alec by insisting on taking notes (p15-16):
I do not like being ‘marked’, or having my papers tampered with editorially, or submitting to a ‘clinical’ opinion I am not in a position to check … his notes are … unfalsifiable. They may well proceed from a psychoanalytic theory. But how is the theory being tested or controlled? How can it be said to be scientific?
Nevertheless, Alec finds his therapist to be sympathetic to his predicament. Not believing there’s anything to be fixed, the pair chat like friends and go for walks and trips. But, having signed the Official Secrets Act, Alec’s past working life cannot be shared. And he’s right to be suspicious of enforced therapy, even from a therapist who rejects his official task (p17):
Psychoanalysts are doubtless persons of integrity, but persons of integrity may still be pawns. There is usually some rule governing our voluntary actions that we either do not know about or are unwilling to acknowledge – the motives of the companies that pay our salaries and ask us to do things, the real functions of justice, and so on.
Published by CB editions, I bought my own copy – as did the members of my book group. Fortunately, they’re up for a challenge, and it certainly generated an interesting discussion.