Archive | May 2015

Book 16: Germany (German) – Der Zauberberg = The Magic Mountain (Thomas MANN)

A simple young man travelled at the height of summer from Hamburg, his home town, to Davos-Platz in the Grisons. He went for a visit of three weeks.

[My translation]

So starts a laboured journey up into the Alps and down into the depths of the human condition. The Magic Mountain is a sort of utopia (or dystopia, since everyone there is sick!) set in a sanatorium in Switzerland. These Olympian heights give Mann (with his suitably encompassing surname) the chance to philosophise on many aspects of life and death. It’s like an Alpine Hotel California, or some weird religious cult (whose god is hypochondria), with the difference that here intellectual inquiry is fostered rather than quashed. Perhaps it’s closer to Hilton’s Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, at least it’s up in the mountains! It is a dense novel of ideas and seems to cover all the big questions like life, love, time and death. Nowadays it seems like no one likes to think about death and sickness, but they are inevitable facets of human existence and ignoring them won’t make them go away.

This is another fairly long work which took ages for me to get through. The long convoluted sentences made it somewhat difficult for me to read in German.


An easier read from Germany is Siddhartha (Hermann HESSE), one of my very favourite books. In a parallel with The Life of Brian and Jesus, at first it seems that Siddhartha is going to be the Buddha, until you find that the latter is another character in the novel. Its majestic prose is to die for.


Mann, Thomas (1875 – 1955), Der Zauberberg, Fischer Taschenbuch, 2008, ISBN 9783596901241

Book 17: East Germany (’German Democratic Republic’) (German): Nachdenken über Christa T. = The Quest for Christa T. (Christa WOLF)


Occasionally I’ll throw in a bonus book for a place you won’t find on the current list of lands in the United Nations. Some of these will be ghost nations, like the late and mostly unlamented East Germany. The title should properly be translated as Reflections on Christa T.

The German word ‘nachdenken’ literally means to think about (or after). And it is the word which opens the book in German.

“To reflect, to think – about her. Of the attempt to be oneself. That is what is found in her diaries, which are left to us, on the loose pages of the manuscripts which have been discovered, between the lines of the letters I am acquainted with. They have taught me that I must forget my memory of her, Christa T. The colouring of memory misleads you.

So do we have to give her up for lost?” (My translation)

Christa T., the subject of this loving portrait, is an extraordinary, ordinary young woman who dies at 35 of leukaemia (heartbreakingly, she is only too aware that she will be one of the last to die of this disease). The narrator first introduces her when a self-sufficient girl appears at her school. She comes to admire her.

In retrospect, the punctuated coming-and-going relationship could be seen as symbolic of the relationship between the Germanies.

The narrator turns Dostoyevsky on his head: “I see now that unhappiness makes people alike, but happiness doesn’t, it makes them individuals”. (123)

She spends her last years planning and building a wonderful little hilltop, lakeside house, but barely gets to live in it. It seems to stand as a symbol of her promising, unfulfilled life.

I couldn’t help feeling that the narrator knows too much about her subject, more than any other human being could possibly know about someone’s inside, even than a spouse or family member. Perhaps a better vehicle for this (almost) omniscience would have been a third person viewpoint. It feels like a biography of a famous writer but with a great deal of speculation. Nevertheless, this is a great book and a fantastic psychological portrait of a candle in the wind.


Wolf, Christa (1929 – 2011), Nachdenken über Christa T., Suhrkamp, 2007, ISBN 9783518459133

15. Book 15: Egypt (English): The Cairo Trilogy (Naguib MAHFOUZ)

1. Palace Walk = Bayn al-qasrayn

Palace walk

MAHFOUZ, Naguib (1911 – 2006), Palace Walk, translated from Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins & Olive E. Kenny, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2001 (originally published 1956), ISBN 978-977-424-681-4

2. Palace of Desire = Qasr al-shawq

Egyptian book 2

Naguib Mahfouz, Palace of Desire, translated from Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins & Olive E. Kenny, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2001 (originally published 1957), ISBN 978-977-424-682-1

3. Sugar Street = al-Sukkariyya

Naguib Mahfouz, Sugar Street, translated from Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins & Olive E. Kenny, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2001 (originally published 1957), ISBN 978-977-424-683-8

Egyptian book 3


She woke at midnight. She always woke up then without having to rely on an alarm clock. A wish that had taken root in her awoke her with great accuracy. For a few moments she was not sure she was awake. Images from her dreams and perceptions mixed together in her mind. She was troubled by anxiety before opening her eyes, afraid sleep had deceived her. Shaking her head gently, she gazed at the total darkness of the room. There was no clue by which to judge the time. The street noise outside her room would continue until dawn. She could hear the babble of voices from the coffeehouses and bars, whether it was early evening, midnight, or just before daybreak. She had no evidence to rely on except her intuition, like a conscious clock hand, and the silence encompassing the house, which revealed that her husband had not yet tapped at the door and that the tip of his stick had not yet struck against the steps of the staircase.
(Palace Walk, translated by William Maynard Hutchins & Olive E. Kenny)

This is a very long family saga (trilogy), which took me ages to get through. I guess it’s Egypt’s War and Peace (although with not much war). It begins with a sequestered wife (Amina) waiting for her husband (al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad) to return home late and drunk. The women in this family have to bite their lips (mostly) and put up with an enormous amount of bad behaviour from their menfolk, right through the work. Whereas her husband, the family patriarch, is respected by everyone, even though, as we will learn, he has some shocking skeletons in his closet. The characters of their children reveal themselves wonderfully as generation follows generation – the garrulous Khadija, the lovely Aisha, the doomed Fahmy, Yasin, the pensive Kamal, not to mention their neighbours and colleagues…
The second volume, Palace of Desire, is perhaps the least interesting of the trilogy. Everyone seems to be behaving badly, even with the same woman! It is occasionally annoying where long periods, even whole chapters, pass with the ‘he’ not being named so you’re not sure who is being referred to!
I love Mafouz’s writing, although I prefer some of his other works (such as Arabian Days and Nights) to this, his undoubted masterpiece. It’s so multifaceted that it’s like a little world to itself.