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Cormac McCarthy: The Road
What separates McCarthy from other writers is his desire to create a world so familiar that it is hard to believe it is fantasy, unrealistic and impossible. Still, the novel's language is so vivid that it is hard to believe that the apocalypse is not coming, that strangers on the road are not going to attack us and that we will not have to brave the harsh conditions of winter alone, in order to survive.
McCarthy sets up his tale poetically, creating the award winning text hinged on a simple yet destructive plot. With brilliant strokes McCarthy captures our attention, weaving the past and present into a careful diatribe on humanity, full of despair. The man and the boy, he surmises, are the symbol of humanity that has failed to live up to its divinity.
In the end, we are left wanting more. The boy represents the hope that humanity can survive. In those emotional final pages, this reader was reluctant to let go of the man and his son. McCarthy’s juxtaposition of life and death together in one setting create an awe-inspiring novel.
If there is one fault, it is the male-dominated world McCarthy often portrays. As in No Country for Old Men, the story centres around the men of the world, giving little time to the equally important women that have created the modernity we all enjoy. The Road is a story about a man and a boy after the mother leaves, and in McCarthy’s argument, is not strong enough to carry the weight of a child with her. This is one of the very few criticisms that has surrounded McCarthy’s genius as a writer, but one that can be pushed aside in light of the story that unfolds.
The structure of the book is difficult to map out. While the story is chronological in the bigger sense, events tend to jump back and forth, where each child slave’s full story is only revealed the further you read. We do not know exactly how either of them came to be until to the end.
Other distractions from the story line are religious references. Using Biblical references, verses from the Quran and the history of Moses and Adam, Thompson uses mythical tales to reflect on the characters at hand and the trials they face. He even has a character and element that bears an uncanny representation of Noah and his arc.
Apart from his use of history and religious fables, Thompson also tells a very aggressive, and often times, dark story. Dodola is married off as a child and upon turning to prostitution is subjected to rape and mistreatment. Zam is a slave who sacrifices his manhood out of a loss of a better life. They are both abused time and time again and having their misfortunes sketched out for the eye to witness adds a shocking element to the novel.
This brings us to what makes the novel so wonderful at the same time; the illustrations. The detailing of the sketches and the exemplary hand-work at play is extremely commendable. Action scenes have your eyes rushing through the pages as frantically as one seen on a TV screen. The beauty in the details is endless; the graphics are looming and grand but also sensual and precise. There is a lot of calligraphy incorporated, which makes for an interesting experience for those who can read Arabic.
Another interesting aspect is his combination of the new and the old. Though the story takes place in today’s world, a lot of the prevalent ideologies are from nomadic times; primitive and beastly.
There is indeed something quite poetic about the story he tells – and the manner in which it is told – regardless of the gruesome, harsh aspects; on the contrary, it is these parts that make the novel that much more meaningful.
The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets by Khairy Shalaby tells the story of Ibn Shalaby, an ordinary modern-day Egyptian man who can travel through time. He has no control over when he is thrown into the past or the future; instead, he must consult his wristwatch to find out what year it is.
In his travels throughout the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk eras and his meanderings around Cairo, Ibn Shalaby meets many rulers, historians and other famous people. His real adventures take off when he presents a cassette recorder to a Fatimid caliph, who of course has never seen such an advanced device before. Unfortunately, the recorder fails to function, angering the caliph and his assistants.
Originally published in Arabic in 1991, the novel was translated into English in 2010 by Michael Cooperson. At parts, the writing style seems stilted and verbose, probably because the translator stayed very close to the original Arabic text. The translator’s afterword is worth a read as it explains the difficult decisions that the translator had to make in order to keep the translation faithful to the original while making it appealing to English readers.
The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets is not really a historical novel, despite what you might expect from the book’s premise. Instead, it is a fantastical and surreal story. The novel can be disorientating as new characters constantly appear and disappear, and Ibn Shalaby bounces through time and space without warning. The story is not particularly gripping; and The Time Travels requires careful, thoughtful reading in order to pick up on the subtleties.
Perhaps the best part of the novel is the main character, Ibn Shalaby. He is constantly surrounded by chaos but manages to observe all the details in his surroundings. He is a witty, amusing character who repeatedly confuses historical figures by mentioning modern-day phenomena such as pharmaceuticals and electronics. Ibn Shalaby’s humour and clever jabs make parts of The Time Travels a joy to read.On the whole, the story can be disjointed and confusing; although this could have been the author’s intention. One of the book’s most central ideas – time travel – was not emphasised as much as it could have been. Though it can be difficult to become engrossed in this book, The Time Travels is recommended to the more persistent readers.
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