A Week in Books: Fiction tells its truth when experts lose the plot

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The Independent Culture

When Edward Said talked to Joan Smith in a packed West End theatre last week, he mentioned that a young Dane had asked him whether she ought to read the Koran in order to understand the world beyond the Christian West. Said responded to her question with his own. To get to know Denmark and its people better, should you read the Bible or Hans Christian Andersen? Andersen, of course, replied the Dane. "The Ugly Duckling" or "The Emperor's New Clothes" will take you far closer to the spirit of that particular place than the Revelation of St John the Divine.

The same goes for the rest of the planet. Instant media specialists on Islam or the Middle East now parade the invisible finery of their "learning" in theology or politics. In fact, they might have spent their time more profitably with a stack of novels from the cultures that they strive to comprehend. Said cited Naguib Mahfouz's classic Cairo Trilogy – now re-issued in a splendid Everyman edition, and a wiser guide to life in the modern Muslim world than a hundred State Department papers.

New fiction can also breach the barriers of ignorance and mistrust. Several of the freshly-translated books I've recently encountered as a judge of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize illuminate this year's events with a subtlety and sparkle that no amount of punditry could match. One of the most heartening was also praised by Edward Said: Only in London by Hanan Al-Shaykh (translated by Catherine Cobham; Bloomsbury), the Beirut-born novelist's high-spirited comedy of cultural cross-purposes, and cross-fertilisations, among the nomadic Arabs of Bayswater and their British neighbours. It shows that those allegedly warring "civilisations" can congregate, and even copulate, as well as clash.

The French-Algerian writer Anouar Benmalek had a more tragic tale of boundary-crossing to recount in The Lovers of Algeria (trans. Joanna Kilmartin; Harvill). Here, family and political history converge in the (true) story of a doomed mixed marriage in time of revolution. Post-colonial troubles also shade Jean-Claude Izzo's pacy, sharp but bleak roman policier, One Helluva Mess (trans. Vivienne Menkes-Ivry; Arcadia), in which Marseilles gangsters plague the lives of young North Africans in France.

The finest portrait of Islam's intellectual quarrel with Christendom came in the context of Orhan Pamuk's cunning historical mystery, My Name is Red (trans. Erdag M Goknar; Faber). In late 16th-century Istanbul, disputes among artists over the blasphemous individualism of the western, "Frankish" style lead to passion, intrigue and murder. This is an extraordinary work from Turkey's bestselling author, as well as a deeply relevant read. It deserves as wide a public as the "Frankish" forerunner to which it pays a gentle homage: Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Some fine Israeli fiction translated this year made its own political point in the form of a flight from politics itself. Writers seemed to turn their backs – in bafflement, exhaustion or despair – on the bloody deadlock around them. Instead, the inner life of desire and sexuality, of ageing and memory, resumed its central role.

Amos Oz delivered a sort of sublimely lyrical soap-opera with The Same Sea (trans. Nicholas de Lange; Chatto & Windus), which tied everyday stories of bereavement and estrangement in golden threads of poetry and scripture. The mixed-up life of secular Tel Aviv, in all its seedy vigour, filled Miss Fanny's Voice by Dorit Peleg (trans. Michal Sapir; Cape). With her dull job, forlorn romantic hopes and distant dreams of showbiz stardom, Peleg's heroine brought a touch of Alan Bennett to the shores of the Eastern Med.

Even Jerusalem, that all too solid, stony city, fades into a kind of spectral backdrop for Love Life by Zeruya Shalev (trans. Dalya Bilu; Canongate). This is a feverishly erotic monologue spoken by a young, academic wife stricken with a consuming passion for an older man.

Yet, even in the midst Shalev's torrid campus romance, the great theme of faith – its limits, and its loss – returns. She tells the story of God's reply to Moses, when he complained that an ambiguous verse of the Torah left room for heresy. "Son of Amram," thundered the Lord, "write, and if anyone wants to err – let him err!" Some of us would rather trust the errors of fiction than the "truths" of priestcraft and statecraft.

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