The Corsair

The Corsair

Title: The Corsair
Author: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud (English translation: Amira Nowaira)
Publication date: 2011
Country/culture: Qatar

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

The CorsairWhat’s it about?

In early 19th-century Arabia, British military forces are fighting the piracy that threatens international trade, and alliances are being sought – and broken – throughout the region. The legendary corsair, Erhama bin Jaber, plays a central role in the conflict, while his rebellious son forges an unlikely friendship with an English major. Personal betrayals mirror political intrigues, and the reader is left pondering the relative success of armed force versus mutual respect in the building of relationships.

What did I find out?

I discovered a great deal about the intricacies of politics and diplomacy. In the story, which is based on real-life events, there are many opposing forces who nevertheless agree to make alliances with each other for short- or long-term mutual benefit. Each agreement involves making certain sacrifices, and ground must be given to achieve the greater objective; losses must be weighed against gains in order to determine whether a good deal is being brokered.

Alliances are sometimes instigated by threat of force, and sometimes by genuine mutual concern. Some are broken as soon as one party has achieved what it wants; others are never intended to be kept at all; and there is a recurring theme of mistrust throughout the novel, as each side accuses the others of breaking promises and betraying commitments. A rare few alliances stay the distance.

The need for diplomacy within and between societies and nations has not left us; diplomats are the unsung heroes of peace, teasing out the non-negotiable from the ‘nice to have’ and aiming for a harmonious outcome. That we still suffer conflict on a global scale indicates just how difficult this process is, and The Corsair illustrates this perfectly.

What do I now see differently?

The characters of Erhama bin Jaber and Captain Loch are presented as a striking contrast between two approaches to decision making. Bin Jaber says, ‘I envy people who can forget the past or change their decisions according to circumstances. Unfortunately I can’t.’ Conversely, Loch is portrayed as someone who has no problem changing his mind about a decision whenever circumstances alter or a plan goes awry; it almost seems as if he thrives on change: ‘Loch was happiest when devising a strategy.’

This ability to think on the hoof and constantly re-evaluate strategy reminded me of my own inclinations in this area. I am naturally a ‘big picture’ person; I can see very clearly what I want my end result to be in any project – but this does not mean I am ignorant of the detail required to get me there. On the contrary, as a bit of a control freak, I have a tendency to get bogged down in the detail and struggle to make noticeable progress toward my end goal, even when I can see it dangling there, enticingly, ahead of me.

I struggle because, unlike Loch, I am not very good at delegating, or asking for help. I frequently feel the need to do everything myself, and when my plans and dreams are as big as they are, this turns an exciting challenge into an insuperably difficult task. Reading this novel has reminded me that I need to get my act together and start asking for help more often.

How will this inspire my writing?

The action of The Corsair takes place in a world of political intrigue and diplomatic virtuosity, as described above; men are shown to make decisions and pursue allegiances based on cold, hard concepts such as trade and power. My own novel currently does not give much thought to the political infrastructure of the world I am writing about, and I’m now thinking I need to pay more attention to this aspect.

Even though most of the action in my novel takes place in the ‘Otherworld’ – the supernatural home of ghosts, fae, vampires etc – my characters still occupy positions and fulfil roles that determine their place in the ‘pecking order’ of this society. Vampires are the aristocrats, zombies are the labourers, other characters and species fit into a variety of roles. All of this screams ‘class issues’, at the very least, and I’m not unaware of the risk of potential stereotyping.

So, while I do make reference to the differences between the characters and their perceived status – and the story will certainly feature some clashes and their resolutions – I need to consider whether I should be addressing this more overtly. This will involve deciding how much to include and how much is merely unnecessary back story; I don’t want to bore people with irrelevant facts, but want to ensure readers fully grasp the way this society works. I’m hoping that I will have fun figuring this out.

A musical interlude

Although this song features ships as a metaphor rather than as real physical entities, the lyrics fit neatly with some of the themes raised in The Corsair, i.e. the pursuit of money and power over peace, love and understanding.

The Alchemist

The Alchemist

Title: The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho (English translation: Alan R. Clarke)
Publication date: 1988
Country/culture: Brazil

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

What’s it about?The Alchemist

An Andalusian shepherd boy has a recurring dream about treasure awaiting him at the Egyptian pyramids, and sets out on a journey across sea and desert to pursue his quest. Along the way he meets both friends and foes, loses his way and finds it again – and learns how to listen to his heart and stay true to his dreams.

What did I find out?

It may seem slightly prosaic to say that I was surprised to discover this book was only published in 1988. It’s held iconic status on the fringes of my consciousness for a long time now, and I’d convinced myself it had been written decades ago. OK, I realise that 1988 is nearly 30 years ago – so it’s not exactly yesterday – but it’s the year I went to university (and also the year my mother was the same age as I am now, which is not a little unnerving), and recently I’ve been struggling quite significantly with the recognition that so much time has already passed in my life.

So this realisation has given me an enhanced sense of the book’s message: that we need to follow our dreams if we are truly to fulfil our destiny. Just because I am older than I would like to be, and haven’t yet achieved everything I know I’d like to achieve in my life, doesn’t mean it’s too late. On the contrary: having that awareness that time is passing gives me an increased sense of urgency to get the hell on with it.

I’m still not entirely sure what my dream or destiny is, but I do know that the clock is ticking…

What do I now see differently?

Oddly, The Alchemist didn’t make me see things differently so much as reinforce something I’ve believed for some time but which I’ve recently been questioning. This is the emphasis on spotting omens to guide your path through life as you seek your ‘treasure’ (destiny): the boy regularly pauses on his journey to look for signs to help him decide what to do next, and it is by following the signs/omens that he is able to stay on track and pursue his quest to its successful conclusion.

While I don’t believe in waiting for an external power to tell me what to do, I do believe – very strongly – that what we call omens, signs or ‘messages from the universe’ are in fact indications of what is going on in our subconscious, or our gut. When something is truly important to us, when we know deep down what we are seeking, we see reminders of it everywhere: the trick is to look out for these reminders, and to recognise them for what they are when they appear.

This quote from page 96 of my edition (HarperCollins, 2012) sums it up for me:

He knew that any given thing on the face of the earth could reveal the history of all things. One could open a book to any page, or look at a person’s hand; one could turn a card, or watch the flight of the birds… whatever the thing observed, one could find a connection with his experience of the moment. Actually, it wasn’t that those things, in themselves, revealed anything at all; it was just that people, looking at what was occurring around them, could find a means of penetration to the Soul of the World.

 

The reference to opening ‘a book to any page’ in fact describes exactly what I am trying to do with the Quick Lit Fix: helping people tune in to their subconscious desires by connecting with random words that will have a unique meaning for them because of their own unique life experiences. Recently I’ve been doubting whether this is just a load of ‘cod psychology’ – but reading this novel has made me realise that it is not, and that I am not alone.

It seems that The Alchemist has acted as my own omen for staying true to my purpose. How about that for synchronicity?

How will this inspire my writing?

I’ve been trying for a while now to write up a more detailed exploration of how I use books to help me tune in to my subconscious and stay on track with what I want out of life. This had fallen by the wayside, but I recently decided I’d have another crack at it. Reading The Alchemist, as you’ll see from the preceding paragraph, has reminded me that this is important to me, that it is not a waste of time, and that I need to keep at it. So I will recognise my ‘omen’ for what it is, and make a renewed effort to continue this work.

Secondly, as the novel is described (on the cover of my edition, at least) as ‘a fable about following your dream’, it has re-ignited another latent idea of mine. In my last post I stated that I would start going to my local open mic night again, with the ultimate aim of performing my own work. I now recall that I once had the idea of writing alternative fairytales or fables – and it might now be fun to give these a try, with a view to performing them at Voicebox.

A musical interlude

This track came to mind before I’d even finished reading the book. It’s from one of my favourite bands of all time, and expresses the sentiments of the novel perfectly, thus presenting another beautiful example of synchronicity.

The Three Musketeers

The Three Musketeers

Title: The Three Musketeers (original title Les Trois Mousquetaires)
Author: Alexandre Dumas, translated by various
Publication date: 1844
Genre: Historical fiction; adventure; political thriller

What’s it about?The Three Musketeers

The young D’Artagnan sets out for Paris with dreams of making his fortune and joining the King’s Musketeers. He quickly becomes firm friends with the Three Musketeers of the title – Athos, Porthos and Aramis – and the four of them embark on a series of adventures that brings them into conflict with the King’s advisor Cardinal Richelieu.

Although the story – and the world in which it is set – is a very masculine one, characters such as Constance Bonacieux, Milady de Winter and the Queen of France play no less important a role than do our heroes. The plot is chock full of intrigue, deception and political manoeuvring; but also love, honour and loyalty.

Some of the good end happily, some unhappily; the same is true of the bad: this is not a sugar-coated romance with an all-round happy ending. It is a real swashbuckler of an adventure, with enough politics thrown in to engage those with an interest in the historical developments of the time.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

Like The Origin of Species, this came from the collection on my late grandmother’s bookshelves. It has a lovely, musty, old-book smell, which added considerably to my pleasure in reading it.

What did I learn from it?

I learned a lot about the political history of the period in which the novel is set: 17th-century France at the time of Louis XIII. One of the key plot twists even works the fictional story of the Musketeers into a real event (which I won’t reveal for fear of spoilers!). I was so fascinated by this that I had to go and look up the details of the historical event, to see which parts Dumas had invented and which were fact.

I also made some more observations about the ways in which stories are adapted for other purposes. As I myself have been involved in adapting a classic novel for the stage, it was interesting to see how the plot of this one book has been modified to suit the framework of the recent TV series The Musketeers. Some of the events in the novel are very conclusive (i.e. people die), so it’s clear that the story has been tweaked so that characters who might prove to be popular can continue to draw the TV crowds.

(Obviously the story has been through a number of dramatic adaptations. Have you read the book and want to comment on its treatment in film and TV? Please share below – I would love to know what you think!)

How did it make me see the world differently?

My sense of feminism got a real workout when observing the character of Milady. Although at first it was pleasing to see a female character play such a dominant, active role in such a masculine story, I couldn’t help but wonder whether (spoilers!) her ‘bad end’ was an indication that any woman who steps beyond the bounds of traditional feminine decency will be duly punished.

I’m still not entirely sure, but the extraordinary detail with which Dumas describes Milady’s many crimes does make me incline to believe her a true villain. She portrays herself as a victim when she isn’t one, and although it could be said that her original position in society left her with no option other than to commit crimes just to get by, I’m not convinced. Her offences are against other women as much as men, and she is motivated by greed and revenge rather than by a desire for right and liberty.

If nothing else, her part of the story has helped me become freshly aware of the difficulties women still face in the world, especially the male-dominated parts of it. Action needs to be taken – but precisely what form that action should take is still debated to this day.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

One of the overwhelming messages of this book is the importance of standing up for what you believe in, no matter how much antagonism or enmity this awakens in others. It was brought home to me after I finished the book just how difficult this can be. Last weekend I shared on Facebook some thoughts on the political situation in the UK – and was stunned by the level of vitriolic comments this attracted from a very small number of acquaintances.

My reaction at the time was to ignore this, deeming the comments unworthy of a response (in Musketeers’ terms, not worthy of a duel). However, afterwards, I felt disturbed by my lack of action: should I have stated publicly that I found them unacceptable? My usual boundary for deleting comments is if they sink to the level of personal insults – and these didn’t stoop quite that low. They weren’t duel-worthy: just unpleasant and unconstructive. But my lack of input – i.e. allowing them to remain on my timeline – left a nasty taste in my mouth.

I realised that, although I am not scared off voicing my opinions by a few naysayers, it is exhausting having to spend time dealing with the fallout. There are some people who will never agree with what I say, and although I am happy for them to express their own views in their own space (indeed, I rely on having access to other perspectives so that I can constantly measure mine against them and see whether I agree), I do not wish to expend energy having to deal with them, unasked for, in my space.

What I have therefore already done – possibly the first time I’ve made a change even before writing the post – is to unfriend these people on Facebook. I won’t actively avoid them in real life, as it’s conceivable I could have a meaningful discussion with them there – but I will not engage in unproductive to-ing and fro-ing on comment threads. I will instead use my online presence to build up relationships with people who are amenable to my views – and who, I hope, will help me to share them more widely. And if these views reach anyone who feels the same way, but who is feeling bullied into keeping quiet by similar loud critics, I hope they will realise that they are not alone.

I am not a fighter, like the Musketeers. I am not a politician, like Cardinal Richelieu. I do not like conflict, and I do not enjoy manipulation. All I can do is share what I believe, in the hope that my constancy, positivity and determination will ultimately make waves. The changes I may be able to effect may be small – but that does not make them any less worthwhile.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!

Tarzan of the Apes

Tarzan of the Apes

Title: Tarzan of the Apes24-book challenge
Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Publication date: 1914
Genre: Pulp fiction/adventure/romance

What’s it about?Tarzan of the Apes

Lord Greystoke and his wife, the Lady Alice, are marooned on the West African coast, where they manage to survive long enough to have a son. Within a day of the boy’s first birthday, both his parents are dead and the infant has been taken by a female ape to replace her own lost baby.

Named Tarzan (‘White Skin’), the boy grows up amongst the apes, learning their way of life and behaving as they do. However, when he chances upon the cabin formerly inhabited by his parents, he discovers books and pictures that suggest his ancestry is not what he has grown up to believe. Through the books, he teaches himself to read and gradually learns a little about the world of men.

His world is turned upside down when another group of humans is marooned on the same stretch of coast. Through meeting Jane Porter, Tarzan discovers what it is to love; and his attempts to help the newcomers survive result in his being taught to speak French by one of them.

By this time, Jane and the others have departed, and so Tarzan sets out on a dual mission: to discover his true identity and to reclaim the woman he loves. To find out whether he succeeds in both these aims, you will have to keep reading right up to the very last sentence of the novel.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

The university library didn’t stock it, and the public library catalogue was down when I tried to access it. As I’d left it a little bit late, I didn’t really want to spend time going to the library only to find it wasn’t there, so I was very pleased to find a ebook version available on Kindle for only 59p.

What did I learn from it?

I learned that the attitudes of less enlightened times can affect my enjoyment of what is otherwise a rollicking adventure story. As much as I tried to tell myself that Burroughs was merely a writer of his age (and, for all I know, more forward thinking than his peers), his perspectives on racial issues and gender roles still grated.

I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy the novel: it is possible to appreciate the romance, be carried away by the swashbuckling and the derring do, and gasp in awe at Tarzan’s physical prowess, without slamming the book shut in disgust. But I could never quite lose myself in it, as Jane’s subservience and the portrayal of the African natives as savages kept leaving an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

On a more positive note, I learned a little about the art of tracking beasts in the jungle (Burroughs gives quite a detailed description of the techniques Tarzan uses); and I learned that the science of fingerprinting was already being used by the police at this time.

How did it make me see the world differently?

The story brought up the whole issue of nature versus nurture: what aspects of Tarzan’s behaviour are intrinsic, and what has he merely been taught? Of course, this touches upon the abovementioned problem of Tarzan’s supposed racial superiority: he is portrayed as having a natural inclination towards honourable behaviour, and we are told that this is because of his high-born ancestry.

But even if we don’t subscribe to this view, the balance between nature and nurture is still fiercely debated to this day. How can any of us really tell which aspects of our personality are determined by genetic inheritance, and which by habit and environment? It is impossible to recollect the time before our behaviours became ingrained, and so we can never really know the true origin of our inclinations.

In the end, we all have the ability to make a choice about how we interact with the world. Even if certain traits are naturally present in us, we are not obliged to express them; and, even if our upbringing does not involve swinging from branch to branch through tropical forests, we can still make decisions on which elements of our life we wish to keep hold of and which we need to let go.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Oddly, when I finished this book, I was rather stuck for ways I could use it to move forward. My reading this time had come at the end of a very busy couple of weeks, and I felt totally out of sync with my own life: I’d lost all sense of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do.

So it felt quite ironic to realise that what I’d lost was my own intuition: the sense of knowing instinctively what was right for me. And I realised that one lesson I could learn from Tarzan was to get back in touch with it! Despite the above point about choosing how we behave in civilised company, we still need to know what drives us underneath, so that we may tell what we can afford to sacrifice for the sake of social niceties and what we can never afford to abandon if we wish to remain true to ourselves.

The other thing I found myself hankering for was the ability to swing through the trees to freedom! And I realised that, even if I had the technical ability, I am seriously lacking in fitness. So I’ve decided to start looking out for some sporting activities I can do to increase my strength and stamina.

I’m not a gym bunny or an aerobics fiend: if I’m going to get active, it needs to be something in the open air, that feels like fun rather than hard work. And I remember I’ve always fancied trying something like rock climbing or hang gliding. They may not quite replicate the experience of jungle life, but it’ll sure beat sweating on a treadmill day in day out!

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!