Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

"Foreigners nearly always wish to simplify the Middle East, Agnes. They cannot tolerate to feel ignorant long enough to understand it."
When all her family die in the 1918 flu pandemic, middle-aged American schoolteacher Agnes Shanklin finds herself suddenly free. Without her overbearing mother to tell her otherwise, she goes shopping for the latest styles and has her hair cut. She also books passage to Cairo, where she just so happens to stumble into Lawrence of Arabia, Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell as they struggle to carve up the Middle East...

Dreamers of the Day is an odd but engrossing book. It's partly a late romance adventure, with the dowdy, timid heroine learning to take what she wants - and then paying the price. But it's also a history lesson, or several strung together.

Its first section covers the flu pandemic, the way it cut down the apparently fit and healthy in their prime, and the effects it had on society. The middle and longest section explores Egypt, Gaza and Jerusalem and has plenty to say on their history and peoples, as well as on the diplomats sowing "black seeds" for the future in the aftermath of World War One and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. The last, short section sees Agnes return home and takes us up to her death and beyond - as it turns out she's narrating this from a special kind of afterlife on the banks of the Nile, in the company of Napoleon and St Francis.

That last section isn't any less odd for having been signposted: Agnes tells us several times throughout the novel that she is long dead and that what she saw will help us understand our world today. It's true, the schoolteacher is concise and lucid in pulling together the threads that explain the sorry mess in the Middle East now.

Agnes is so horrified by the English toffs dictating the fate of these nations (it reminds her too much of being forced to eat oatmeal as a child - whether it was good for her is not the point). So perhaps it's ironic that she often lectures us on the history of the region. But it's hard to object because it's so deftly done. It's a beautifully told story - full of wryly observed character and humour, and joy in the adventure. I just felt that the final conceit rather trivialises what has gone before.

Other reviewers don't share my dissatisfaction with the end. Niall Harrison, for example, says:
"The effect of [Agnes being dead], which I take to be deliberate, is to break the immersion associated with historical fiction. Agnes's times are not for us to live in—they are for us to watch."
Perhaps that's my objection: as a narrative device, it stops us losing ourselves in the story and the rich, tangible world that's created. That's a shame because the book otherwise feels very credible: the characters - both real and invented - feel like flesh and blood. That's quite a feat, to paint Churchill and Lawrence not as myths but as men.

The book is peppered with sharp observations, too. I especially liked Agnes guiltily justifying a trip to a medium after all her family died.
"And remember, please, all the other invisible forces that had so recently become a part of our lives in these days. Madame Curie's radiation, and Signore Marconi's radio, and Dr Freud's unconscious. Even before I died, it seemed possible that there might be some scientific basis for communication with the unseen soul. There might be a sort of telephone of the spirit, or maybe radio waves, which were there to be heard if only one were tuned to the right frequency."
Mary Doria Russell, Dreamers of the Day, pp. 70-1.
I was intrigued by mention of Lady Churchill, Winston's mother:
"Jennie Churchill was, according to Winston, one-quarter Iroquois".
Ibid., p. 155.
But that turns out to be a myth. There's a nice bit of history when one woman suspects Karl of being homosexual because he wears a "bracelet watch". Agnes snaps back a reply:
"They're called wristwatches... All the soldiers wore them in the war."
Ibid., p. 199.
Karl, the unreliable spy who Agnes falls for, is a fascinating character. Russell tells us in her acknowledgements that,
"As often as possible, I let historical figures write their own dialogue".
Ibid., p. 375.
But Karl is not a historical figure, and his job here is to question the statements by Lawrence, Churchill et al. According to Niall Harrison, this creates a game of "knowingness", where we question and interrogate what these people say. I think it's simpler than that: Karl makes us more suspicious of what Agnes takes on face value. Plus, his status as a Jewish German (not a German Jew, as he says himself) makes us less trusting of the claims made by westerners about nations, religions and race in the Middle East.

The book rather concludes that, despite the best efforts of the peacemakers, there will always be war. Napoleon and Churchill both seem to relish the prospect. For a book so preoccupied with faith, it ends feeling rather hopeless.

And yet earlier, when Agnes visits Jerusalem and is furious by the lies told by those guiding the tourists around, Lawrence comes to her rescue. He explains that no, the current city, is not the one in which Jesus lived:
"When they started excavations at the northeast wall of the Temple, archaeologists had to dig through something like a hundred and twenty-five feet of debris before they got to the level of Herod's city. My field was Hittite, but I think this Jerusalem is probably the eighth ... The city of David sat on an even earlier settlement. Then there's Solomon's Jerusalem, which last about four hundred years. Nehemiah's - three hundred for that one, I believe. Herod's Jerusalem was magnificent, by all accounts. That's what everyone expects to see when they come here, but Titus destroyed it. Later on, a small Roman city was built on the ruins. Since then, Muslims and Christians traded this place repeatedly, and burned it down occasionally. And yet... the pilgrims come."
Ibid., p. 281.
Agnes protests that it's a nineteen-hundred-year-old scam (and is most upset by the thought that her late sister devoted so much of her short life to it). But Lawrence counters with a surprising argument:
"'Jerusalem has always been important strategically. It's been one war after another for millennia. But if you can convince enough people that this place is sacred ...?'
He let me consider this until I could admit I'd understood his point: 'Then maybe the next army won't destroy it.'
The corners of his long mouth turned up, but the real smile was in those tired eyes, already lined at thirty-two. 'The present city has survived six hundred years,' he said. 'That's the longest stretch on record.'"
Ibid., pp. 282-3.

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