The Calligrapher’s Secret – Rafik Schami

14 Dec
This was a random pick-up from the library’s New Fiction shelf, and I grabbed it because I’ve been feeling like I could use a dose of the exotic. Couple that with my near-nonexistent knowledge of Syria, and I was ready to get down with The Calligrapher’s Secret by Rafik Schami. After finishing this a few weeks ago and trying to settle on my reaction, I’m torn on this one. There were aspects I really loved, but something else that kept niggling me, preventing me from truly escaping into the story.

First, what I loved:

  • Damascus! I don’t know much about this city, but I’ve definitely gotten an intriguing taste of this complex, cruel, and beautiful place.
  • You know what’s awesome? Calligraphy. No joke. The intricacies of calligraphy are fascinating, and learning about the craft of calligraphy makes me incredibly curious to find out more. I’ve always loved handwriting – I even got my dad to copy out some of his recipes by hand because his handwriting is beautiful.
  • Embarrassingly enough, I don’t know as much about Islam and the life of Muslims as I should. I mean, I know the basics that any college-educated person would, but nothing in detail. This gave me definite insight into a complicated religion and lifestyle and inspired me to learn much more.

What I didn’t really love:

  • It takes a looooong time for things to happen. While I loved meeting all the characters, eventually I started wondering when they were going to meet and the real plot of the book would get started.
  • Dropped plotlines. What about Pilot the dog? What about Noura’s neighbor Maurice? I felt like I kept getting invested in characters only to have them inexplicably disappear or fade away without ceremony.
  • This is a little one, but *SPOILER* ….I felt like Noura and Salman fell in love in such a strange, quick way. All of a sudden, after never even talking much, Noura decides she loves Salman and he quickly agrees. What? Of course, there’s always the possibility that there was some underlying theme that I failed to pick up on and this makes sense in a fabulous, literary way and I’m just completely obtuse, but it bugged me and didn’t really allow me to engage with them as a couple.

All in all, I got into the atmosphere of the book, but the plot…just didn’t do enough for me. I felt like the author would engage me in something, then drift away into a new topic and, eventually, I got tired of it. I’d love to learn more about this culture though – that was as fascinating as I hoped. Maybe I’ll try something else by Schami – Wikipedia is making me think he’s an interesting dude. Born in Syria, he moved to Germany as an adult and now seems to write primarily in German. It could be that this one just didn’t connect with me, and that it would be completely wonderful for someone else.

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