Kaleidoscopic Novel Woven Around Syrian History

By Daniel Hugh-Jones

The Dark Side of Love
By Rafik Schami
Interlink Books, 2009, 900 pp.

“The Dark Side of Love,” a massive and kaleidoscopic novel by the Syrian-born Rafik Schami, comes to us translated from the German, since its author has lived in Germany as an exile from his native Syria for almost 40 years. And yet there is an elegiac tone to the novel that makes clear how much its author misses Damascus and Syria, the land of his birth. It is perhaps due to the almost palpable sense of love for a land little seen that “The Dark Side of Love” is reminiscent at times of Charles Dickens, or the Brazilian, Jorge Amado, two other writers whose works are inseparable from the cities they celebrated and who also wrote on this scale.

Although Schami bookends the novel with an introduction and resolution that might suggest a detective novel (on page six a bus driver discovers the body of a murdered secret policeman, and in the antepenultimate chapter we witness the murderer set off to kill his victim), the scope of the intervening 800 pages verges on the epic. The novel tells the story of two star-crossed lovers from a small Christian village outside Damascus, each from one of the village’s two main families, the Shahins and the Mushtaks, one Orthodox and one Catholic, who have been fighting a blood feud for a century and who would willingly kill even their own children to forestall a marriage with their enemies.

The threads of the story of the lovers and their families are, however, woven into nothing less than a social and political history of Syria over the 20th century, and Schami is ever awake to the parallels between the small scale and the large. The hero’s boyhood miseries in a Catholic monastery are subsequently replicated on a grand scale when he is thrown into the Syrian gulag for his political dissent, and both episodes reveal the moral equivalence of his tyrannical father and the succession of dictators in political power. It is immensely to the author’s credit that his descriptions of grand politics are as enthralling as the tales of murderous skullduggery in a tiny village riven by hatred.

Incidentally, I should point out that my use of the word “tales” is intentional. Myth and magic are seamlessly worked into the novel as a whole, and one cannot read this book without being made aware of its kinship to traditions of oral storytelling and such works as “The Arabian Nights” or the “Kalila wa Dimna.” Like such works, “The Dark Side of Love” is composed of many (almost 300) short chapters – some no more than a few pages in length – and the result might have been fragmented, but such is Schami’s skill that the work is immensely greater than the sum of its parts. As with a mosaic or a fine rug, the sweep of its narrative comes better into focus when we step back from its details and engage with the whole.

Finally, it would be churlish to ignore Anthea Bell’s admirably lucid translation which never comes between us and this fine novel.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid