Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Dreamers of the Day

Mary Doria Russell’s fiction has always dealt with power and the search for elusive lands as a means to further it. In her first novel, The Sparrow, and its sequel, Children of God, a band of Jesuits colonize a distant planet. While their intentions are noble, the results of their actions are devastating.

For her fourth book, Dreamers of the Day, Russell shifts her gaze to the Middle East, specifically to the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference where a group of high-profile Europeans met to decide the fate of the region in the aftermath of the First World War. Our guide along this fascinating trip is Agnes Shanklin, a 40-year-old spinster who lives the staid life of a schoolteacher in Cleveland, until she lands a huge pie of inheritance money.

Agnes is the only one from her extended family to survive the influenza pandemic of 1918. As per reports, an estimated 675,000 Americans died of influenza during the pandemic, ten times as many as in the Great War. Agnes loses her mother, brother, sister Lillian, Lillian’s husband and two little sons.

Up until now, the only person who has had an unquestioned bearing on Agnes’s life is her oppressive mother, who has employed a mixture of guilt and aggression to keep Agnes’s wings clipped. But after her death and the bequest of a sizable legacy, Agnes’s life is about to be transformed from the dull and willful monotony Agnes has unwittingly caged it in.

She decides to convert a long-cherished dream, a visit to the Holy Land, into reality. Accompanied by her lovable dachshund, Rosie, she sets sail for Egypt, buoyed by the memory of her sister’s stay in the region, where Lillian served as a missionary for a while. Little is Agnes aware that she will land into a momentous event in modern history. Her first experience of Egypt is unpleasant, unused as she is to “the crushing heat and a buzzing horror of flies”.

But soon, thanks to Lillian’s connections, Agnes finds herself in illustrious company. There is Winston Churchill, a hoity-toity colonial secretary, who is mandated to secure British access to the region’s colossal oil reserves, under the garb, of course, of bringing stability to a fragile land (Sound familiar?). There is Gertrude Bell, the redoubtable British writer, credited with drawing up the borders of Mesopotamia (that later became Iraq). And there is the swashbuckling T. E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia”, who, having engineered the Arab revolt against the Turks, enjoys tremendous goodwill with the local populace.

Unbelievably, Agnes begins to spend time with these power brokers, moving in and out of their circle with the ease of an old timer. Bell is distant with Agnes, treating her as a novice, someone not to be bothered with as she goes about negotiating countries’ borders. Churchill, blunt to a fault and no believer of political correctness, regales Agnes with the nuances of warfare. It is the charming and principled Lawrence, however, to whom Agnes grows the closest.

In their midst is a fictional German spy, Karl Weilbacher, who gives Agnes her only real taste of romance. In this respect, the novel, in spite of its formidable cast of characters, continues to be Agnes’ story. So, even as he tries to extricate secrets out of Agnes—secrets that only she is privy to given her closeness with “the set”—Karl emerges as a sympathetic lover who enables Agnes to rethink her possibilities in love.

Deserving special mention is Russell’s fascination for the inclusive culture of the Arab world, symbolized by her vivid description of a place that was doomed to attract attention in later years for all the wrong reasons.

…Jerusalem teemed with humanity of all kinds. Shrouded Arab women, white-turbaned Muslim mullahs, Greek priests, Italian monks, and robed Bedouin in kuffiehs joined fashionable French tourists, ragged water carriers, shouting street vendors, store owners, British soldiers, American businessmen, and earnest pilgrims—all these milling amid the beggars, the lepers, and the blind crying, “Baksheesh!”

They say the past is a foreign country. Russell will have you believe otherwise. A sense of déjà vu (in reverse) pervades the text as the West, close to a century after the events described in the book, continues to face the quagmire that its actions have wrought. Explaining the fallacy of deciding the fates of entire nations, Karl tells Agnes:

Who are the British to tutor the people of the Middle East? Civilization was here for thousands of years when the British were still wearing bearskins and painting themselves blue…Foreigners nearly always want to simplify the Middle East, Agnes. They cannot tolerate to fell ignorant long enough to understand it.

Eventually, Agnes returns to Cleveland and becomes a stock market player. Like the other crucial events in her life, the stock market crash of 1929 comes like a bolt from the blue, drowning her fortune. Agnes narrates her eventful life story from beyond the grave. We are now in the present, and Agnes spends her days by the Nile, fulfilling a prophecy that anyone who swallows the mighty river’s water is fated to stay by its side for eternity. Like in life, Agnes is fortunate to rub shoulders with the high and mighty in death too: Gandhi, Napoleon et al.

Russell is a writer of great skill. The worlds she conjures are richly detailed products of meticulous research, if not personal experience. You may not agree with the political message of her book, but it is impossible to ignore her conviction, borne of a deep humanity, that geopolitics does not sit well with hubris. As Lawrence wrote in his autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Russell uses to resounding effect in her book,

Those who dream by night wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.

As America grapples with the fruits of its actions in Iraq, Dreamers of the Day is a timely reminder of that classic dictum: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

A condensed version of this review appeared in Barnes & Noble Review.

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