Book Review–The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami
A dead man hangs from the portal of St Paul’s Chapel in Damascus. He was a Muslim officer – and he was murdered. But when Detective Barudi sets out to interrogate the man’s mysterious widow, the Secret Service takes the case away from him. Barudi continues to investigate clandestinely and discovers the murderer’s motive: it is a blood feud between the Mushtak and Shahin clans, reaching back to the beginnings of the 20th century. And, linked to it, a love story that can have no happy ending, for reconciliation has no place within the old tribal structures
The Dark Side of love is an 853 page tome, set in Syria and written in German. Rafik Schami grew up in Syria but moved to Germany in 1971.
From the description on the back cover you would think this is a murder mystery, but it isn’t in the general sense. It starts at the end and then works it’s way backwards and forwards to create a mosaic of life and love that lead towards the end.
It is set between Damascus and the village of Mala, homeland of the warring Mushtak’s and Shahin families, who are both of the Christian minority who live within Syria. The Mushtak’s are Catholic and the Shahin’s are Orthodox – but the original argument between the two is mostly forgotten, replaced by decades of hatred and wrong-doings between the two families.
Caught between the two, Farid, a Mushtak and Rana, a Shahin, fall madly in love. Their love is illicit and from the beginning doomed.
The first half of the book goes backwards and forwards in time – starting in the present, moving backwards and forwards through time until it settles down half way through and become a more linear story. It is slow but well written – Schami breaks the common rule of writing to show and not tell, but it is so well written that it works.
Syria is a country ravaged by political coups for many decades, most which fail and very few lasting more then a few years, if that. Schami slightly changes the names of the various dictators making it somewhat hard to place within historical reality, which I found rather unsatisfying. I would like to have learnt more about Syria but I felt that he brushed over many historical details, whilst including them at the same time.
Despite the melting political hotpot that existed in that time and place – the Soviet Union looming over the middle east with the Cold War, war with Israel, Egypt and political forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood mixed in it all felt rather diluted. What was it like to be Christian, and yet also Arab, living in a largely Muslim country? I don’t know. Mostly Schami recounts many tales of (often failed) love, some related to the wider story and some just little side-stories that take up a short chapter of their own.
Schami pointed out the hypocrisy of people, society and of men in their attitudes towards love, their families and their religion. It felt like and endless ream of unfairness and unhappiness – how could people act and behave this way? Of course we know it happens all the time…
It took me so long to read this, partly because I had to read it for my book group and wasn’t in the mood and partly because it is a slow-cooking novel it didn’t feel like one I wanted to rush through. I became quite absorbed in the writing, the characters and the various stories that complete this book as a whole.
However, it also just seemed to go on and on and there were a few parts that I found just a bore to get through. I admire Schami for the book he wrote and the story he created and I would like to read something else of his again. But I feel this book was tainted by the fact I was just not in the mood for it at all. It was not that it was depressing, or dark – it was just that it was a constant low beam of unhappy people, failed love and misery.
I’m not entirely sure this is a fair “review” if you can even call it that. I took so long over it (and I am a monogamous reader which makes it worse as I never get a break from it) that I felt so deflated at the end. Although I enjoyed it and wouldn’t like to say I didn’t – I also found many parts of it tedious.