Book Review: Dreamers of the Day, by Mary Doria Russell
|The Middle East in 1921|
Ever since the US, over the past two decades, began invading the Middle East every few months, I’ve come across occasional references to how the current Middle Eastern borders were arbitrarily laid out by the European powers after WWI, and about the problems that’s still causing.
But if you told me you could learn a lot about it by reading a novel about a schoolteacher from Ohio who takes a trip to Egypt and hobnobs with Winston Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia, and a slew of other fascinating characters, I’d be skeptical.
If I needed details about the Cairo Conference of 1921, the actual historic event Mary Russell's Dreamers of the Day is centered on, where the modern Middle East was created, or Churchill’s or TH Lawrence’s or anyone else’s role in it, I could probably come by those pretty quickly. Besides, the Marxist analysis of Capitalism renders the details of imperialist ventures somewhat immaterial. Imperialism, a function of Capitalism’s continual need for raw materials and new markets, is just going to be there. It’s pretty simple. Capitalism can’t function without imperialism, so it happens. I’d never bothered before to read up on how the Middle East was divided up, but the fact that it happened, the reasons for it, were understandable to me anyway.
If you asked me if it mattered that this Ohio schoolteacher, nearly 40 and a still virgin, ends up having an affair with a German spy, I might ask to see the book so I can page through it, but I still wouldn’t likely read it. There’s just too much on my reading list already.
I recently posted something, though, about how I listen to audio books during my endless hours of driving and was saying how the narrator can make or break a novel, and someone who’s opinion I respect recommended Dreamers of the Day and said it was nicely narrated, so I downloaded it. Since then I’ve been to Egypt and back, had a very entertaining week, have a better understanding off the Middle East, and learned something about myself.
With modern technology, I had the audio book downloaded in my laptop’s iTunes program within minutes. But once it was in there I couldn’t load it into my trusty iPod. It looked like it loaded, but it didn’t show up on the iPod. It’s almost ten years old and I’ve been half expecting something like this to happen.
A quick search turned up lots of discussion about this kind of thing, but I was about to get ready to go to work and didn’t have time to read through it let alone try anything. Then it occurred to me to just load the book into my iPhone, and it went in there just like that.
While the iPhone was working its magic it also downloaded all my podcasts and a couple of other audio books, and was about to download my entire music library, too, but it did stop and ask me about that.
I opened up the iPhone and found a nice, handy new menu with all my downloaded books and podcasts in it, all listed in print that’s huge compared to the old iPod, and there was no annoying thumb wheel that often selects whatever it wants to on the iPod.
I’ve had that sensation of loss before, with other things. I wondered about that. Usually, like the iPod, it’s been some kind of machinery. Cars, pickups, bicycles, once a typewriter. We’re like that with our pets. We come to love them. Face it, they’re easier to get along with than people are. You get a real good read on animals. They're direct and honest all the time. But machines? Like with our pets, there are memories associated with them. And we also endow them with human characteristics they don’t really have. But machines are made by people, for people. When people make machines they’re imagining how they’re going to be used, and they’re being made with the idea of making their user’s life easier, more pleasant, better, and they do that or people wouldn’t buy them and use them.
Despite what’s often repeated about old timers being set in their ways, old people, I maintain, are much better at accepting change than their children or grandchildren, who often resist change. By the time oldtimers make it to oldtimerdom they’ve seen everything change, completely, several times. I think it’s part of why they so easily and unconditionally not only love their grandchildren but accept what they do. They’ve seen the strange styles of youth come and go in several generations, and they have a longer view of what people go through when they grow up and come of age than the kids’ parents do. They remember their own youth, not as someone who’s trying to pretend they’re no longer young and foolish but as someone who understand the limits of human wisdom. The essence of life is change, it’s often repeated, and old people know that making mistakes is just one more part of life you have to get used to.
But if old people can accept change, why do we, why do I, cling to my old possessions and habits? Is it that we’re used to change in the external world but resist it in our own, internal world?
I’ve been wondering about that all week. I normally wouldn’t listen to a book like this. When it comes to what I spend my spare time on, I almost never use it to simply entertain myself. It’s seems as though I’m on a drive to learn as much as I can before I die, not about just anything but important things, what the great writers and artists and philosophers were thinking when they painted and wrote and sat drinking and smoking in the salons of Paris or the staterooms of St Petersburg or the taverns of the East Village. I like to write, and I don’t want keep doing it in a halfassed way forever, if I can help it. I want to be able to contribute in some way to the conversation those writers and artists were, and still are having. I want to say something important. I want to be important. So reading, watching films (never movies!) is almost like work to me. It’s interesting work — good books are actually entertaining and fun to read, the same with good movies, and it’s joy to gaze at a very good painting — but with me it’s all in the context of a serious endeavor.
A bit of literary snobbishness has crept in there, too, I suppose. As I began finding myself able to recognize good art, good books, from mediocre, as my reading list accumulated weight, as my knowledge base grew, after I’d been to many art museums and read many critical essays on art and literature, I began seeing myself in a certain way. Not consciously — my proletarian bias prevents it — but as someone who is better at at least this one thing than the average person. I don’t have a lot of accomplishments to look back on, but I’m pretty well informed.
I was quickly engrossed in this audio book. First, with the way the author deftly made those improbable occurrences seem quite plausible. The schoolteacher had lived quite sensibly and it wasn’t her fault that she came into the family’s money. She was almost compelled to go to Egypt. She couldn’t avoid coming into contact with Churchill and Lawrence. And of course as the character develops and grows it becomes almost necessary to lose her virginity with her German spy acquaintance; in fact I began to wonder if they were ever going to get into the sack and only when they did could I move on with my own life.
But it’s an interesting book on several levels. Much of its plausibility comes from the tremendous amount of reading — research, as they call it — the author had to have done. She speaks commandingly about the Middle East, and about a view of it that’s probably held by most US and European policy makers, and state department Middle East specialists, who know as much about their areas as anybody. It’s a viewpoint steeped in history, as it pertains to Western imperialism.
The book also contains a lot of delightful travelogue. You can almost imagine the author taking notes during an excursion into the scary ancient heart of Cairo or on a hot, dusty train ride up into Palestine or on a cruise up the Nile River on a steam boat. The book is set in the 1920s and it’s as if someone was taking notes back then. She’s just a good writer, and to weave the story she tells into the history and the traveling is quite an accomplishment.
What you don’t get is very much about Middle Easterners themselves — the Egyptians, Palestinians, Lebanese and other nationalities that appear. You don’t learn much about their personal lives or what they thought about their countries being used as pawns or what they thought should have happened instead. I couldn’t decide why that was. Does Ms Russell not speak Arabic? But there are plenty of English speaking Middle Easterners. Did she not actually go there? All the historical detail in the book came from her reading and perhaps the travelogue did, too, but are there not English translations of Arabic writers from that time who wrote about what the people who were affected by it all thought? Yes, there are.
Maybe it was intentional. The book is, after all, about America, about our coming to the position we’re in, the most important imperial power in the world, coming to be the power broker of the Middle East on the heels of the great imperial powers of Europe. The schoolteacher, with her practical good sense, her ability to see over her own ego, is America. Her coming of age is its coming of age. Her Puritan mother always whispering in one ear and her Liberal flapper friend in the other are our own conflicted impulses.
It’s such a dense, engrossing, audaciously conceived novel, however, that not knowing what the natives think is more of a minor distraction, and in an extended, surprising epilogue our Ohio schoolteacher, much wiser than when she left for Egypt, does let us know how we can avoid the mistakes of the past and the ones we’re still making in the Middle East, and how we can come to see all human beings as human. I’m glad I listened to it. It was quite a lesson.
A note on the willing suspension of disbelief: The book is written in the first person. The main character is narrating it, telling her story. At one point she tells about an excursion by camel, organized by Churchill, to see the great pyramids. Churchill, courageous but never having ridden a camel before, falls off his. Lawrence, the Middle East veteran, falls asleep on his. Everyone is sore and tired by the time they reach the pyramids.
She describes a photograph being taken there. For the picture Churchill, his wife, Lawrence, and all the dignitaries lined up on their camels before the Sphinx, with the pyramids in the background. It’s an actual photograph, that I’d seen before. In the photo there are two women standing on the ground, and in the book, she’s one of them.
I started wondering if this Ohio schoolteacher, Agnes Shanklin, was really an actual person. Did the author spot the woman in the photograph, look up a few details about her, and come up with the idea for this novel? I searched all over the internet for who’s in that photo. The most famous people are always named. Sometimes a few of the lesser known officials are named. Never are the women standing on the ground named. They’re whoever you want them to be. I think the writer just got me on that one. Good job, Mary Russell.