Love, a good story

Posted on April 16, 2014

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Better to face lions than women – Eritrean proverb

I cheated a bit with Eritrea. addoniaThe book I chose is by an Eritrean, Sulaiman Addonia, but Addonia has spent most of his life outside Eritrea – his early life in a refugee camp in Sudan following the Om Hajer massacre (villagers were machine gunned in front of a river to avoid escape), and a move to London in 1990 after a 14 year stint in Jeddah where he studied. The reason I chose Addonia’s The Consequences of Love is mainly because it was the only ‘Eritrean’ novel I could find in English, but also because I’ve been on a quest (for myself and one of the book groups I’m in) to find a well-written, non-chic lit romance. Further, the main character in Consequences of Love, like Addonia himself, flees to Saudi Arabia but yearns for his abandoned homeland. This nostalgic gaze, I felt, might throw up some interesting views of Eritrea while simultaneously offering an outsider’s view of Saudi Arabia.

The story is set in Jeddah under a strict Wahhabi regime. The main character, Naser, is a refugee, cut adrift by his conservative Uncle when he refuses to attend the local mosque.   Having grown up in a more open environment especially where women and alcohol are concerned, Naser finds the repression of the regime and the hypocrisy of its adherents (reminiscent of the highest Victorians) hard to bear. In a society where women are hidden and men find boys to satisfy their sexual desires, Naser is pimped first by his Uncle and then by his employer.     In this respect, Addonia paints a very unsympathetic picture of Saudi. I kept having to remind myself that the setting of Consequences of Love is the recent past (the 1990s). I sincerely hope that it is less restrictive, abusive and hypocritical today.

Addonia, himself, has been keen to point out that the novel is not autobiographical, so maybe we shouldn’t judge Saudi too harshly. Interviewed by the Bookseller, he noted: “Obviously my journey is similar to the one Naser takes in the book, but as far as similarities go it ends there”. And he continued, “It’s a real world, but within that world I am imagining the possibilities.”

The key moment in the book is when ‘Fiore’ a young burqa-bedecked woman, drops a note at Naser’s feet telling him she has watched him and loved him from afar. This would seem improbable if it weren’t for Addonia’s explanation; “The dropping of notes actually happens and was quite a big phenomenon when I was living in Saudi Arabia. The idea of a woman dropping a note for someone that she likes implies she’s not passive and she’s prepared to take a huge risk. I found it inspiring and wanted to take it further to see where the note might lead.”

Where it leads is a fascinating love story that highlights what is possible even under the oppressive demands of the Saudi regime. By way of contrast, and lest we begin to feel anti-Islamic, Addonia thankfully gives us plenty of examples from Egypt and Eritrea of more open, liberal, accepting states. As the love between Naser and Fiore grows, first through the exchanging of notes and subsequently through highly risky, clandestine meetings (the punishment, if caught, is truly gruesome), the real theme of the book emerges – how do individuals (women/refugees) take agency in a country so hell bent on denying self-determination?

I hope the book shows that it’s not a world of black and white, [Addonia] says. I’m intrigued by young people and their struggle to define their own identity. For me it’s very exciting to write about strong individuals, strong in the sense that they try their hardest to pursue love, regardless of the consequences.

If I have a couple of niggles they are that, one, the love letters written between Naser and Fiore don’t have the epic emotion fundamental to letters secretly passed between two star-crossed lovers, and two, that one of the consequences of reading about their love is that one begins to feel, while not hate exactly, revulsion for a country and its people. I do not like feeling like that.

That aside, The Consequences of Love is an interesting read, offering a glimpse into a closed society and a recognition of the ways in which love, like a weed, grows in the most challenging ground. In modern times when in most countries there is no impediment to love, it satisfies most of the conditions of the romantic fiction. Increasingly, a romantic novel can only work in these kinds of impossible conditions, well, unless writers choose to go down the route of the ‘Time Traveller’s Wife’ or, as seems to be the fashion, give one of the potential lovers some sort of personality disorder.  Will I be recommending it to book group? Probably not. Ultimately, and regretfully, it just falls short of either the sweet sorrow of a Romeo and Juliet or the exhausted jouissance of a Pride and Prejudice or a Jane Eyre. Will I read more of Addonia’s work? Absolutely.

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