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A Designated Man, By Moris Farhi
Mythic world with modern parallels
Wednesday 20 May 2009
In A Designated Man, Moris Farhi brings the narrative vigour, empathy and insight he employed in earlier novels about Latin America, Turkey and the Roma in Europe to the Balkans and the Middle East. He explores wars past and present, and the blood feuds found in so many parts of the world. Osip, world-weary and battle-scarred physician and veteran of the long People's Wars, returns to his birthplace, the remote island of Skender. After decades on the mainland, he finds himself mired once more in the feuds that killed his father and drove him away.
Skender is an island at once imaginary and real, its myths, customs and landscapes reminiscent of many Balkan and Mediterranean places. Like the dusty town in John Berger's From A to X, this nowhere is not a utopia but an all-too- familiar anywhere. The modern realities of global oppression, "where governments abandon certain regions like parents who desert their children", are ever-present.
The story unfolds in a time both contemporary and mythic: the dreamtime of storytelling. With the tacit approval of distant superpowers, absentee landlords impoverish the people of the island. Cowed by the Law and "goose-fed with honour", they engage in blood feuds until there are no adult men left in a defeated clan. When that comes to pass, as in Albania, a family may elect a woman as a "designated man" to protect the clan. Osip returns to the island to renounce both desire and violence, but when he falls in love he finds himself pitched into a life-and-death struggle against the Law.
The six protagonists recount the novel's story with a compelling urgency, yet there is much to linger over. Farhi's imaginary world is no tidy republic, he insists that sexual desire is central to an ethical life, and his vision is an intelligent and impassioned antidote to the stern and infertile utopias of philosophers like Plato. Despite its tragic dnouement, this is a roar of a book, a novel bursting with an uplifting generosity of spirit and lust for life.
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