Monday, October 24, 2005


Double trouble: The Successor, Maimonides

On Sunday, I reviewed Ismail Kadare's The Successor in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. It's a devious, dreamy, sometimes frustrating read--the author has stocked it with an entire school of red herrings--but very much worth the trouble:
The new novel by Ismail Kadare, who won the 2005 Man Booker International Prize, begins with a time-honored narrative device: a corpse. And not just any corpse. On a cold December morning in 1981, the anointed successor to Albania's current dictator is found in his bedroom with a bullet in his brain. The official verdict is suicide. The public, which already has seen the regime take a chainsaw to its political deadwood on numerous occasions, suspects murder. And the reader of The Successor awaits the entrance of a detective--a Balkan-style Sherlock Holmes in a white tarboosh--to finger the guilty party.

The reader will wait in vain. Because in Albania, as in every totalitarian society, guilt and innocence have brokered a new, symbiotic relationship. Nobody is quite free of corruption. Everybody spies on his neighbor, and is spied upon in return: "The only way you can get a grip on a place overcome by paranoia," Kadare writes, "is by becoming a little paranoid yourself." This is not an atmosphere conducive to neat solutions.
You can read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, over at Newsday, I reviewed Sherwin Nuland's Maimonides:
The tradition of the doctor as literary man (or woman) has a long, honorable pedigree, and it's easy to see why. For the physician, the broken heart and corruptible flesh are no mere abstractions but everyday realities—and death, staved off by pills and high-tech palliatives, is quite literally a fact of life. In our time, Sherwin B. Nuland (How We Die) is probably the foremost exponent of this tradition. Who better, then, to write a short life of its founding father, the great Maimonides?

Moses ben Maimon was born in Cordoba, Spain, in 1138, the product of seven generations of rabbinical stock. At the time, Cordoba was the epicenter of Islamic civilization in Europe--the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I called it "the ornament of the world"--and Jews were given at least a lukewarm welcome. In 1148, however, the fundamentalist Almohads gained control of the Iberian peninsula. In short order the city's non-Muslims were imprisoned, tortured or (if they were lucky) shown the door.
You can read the entire piece here. Nuland seems less interested in biographical minutiae than in the spiritual progress of his subject, who supposedly had the best bedside manner since Hippocrates. In any case, it's a lucid little book about a fascinating figure, whose Guide for the Perplexed still leaves most of its readers, well, perplexed.

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