"A vast, sweeping family saga of great ambition and humanity ' Schami's faultless handling of his multiple timelines, his rich characterization, and his bighearted storytelling lift this novel far above the ordinary. At once a page-turning thriller, an illuminating insight into Syrian society and politics, and an all-encompassing tale of loyalty and treachery, Sophia is a novel of great scope and depth from a consummate writer.” — New Internationalist
Rafik Schami returns to his native Damascus in words to tell a story of the power of love despite separation and political turmoil. Set just before the Arab Spring, this intricate and passionately penned novel shows that the love you choose may be true, but we are all beholden to the long threads of fate. In this exuberant novel, Rafik Schami weaves an intricate tapestry of love, sectarianism, exile, oppression and revolution. Banipal 63
A leading figure in European migrant literature, Schami (The Dark Side of Love) fled Syria for Germany in 1970. His fourth novel, beautifully translated into English, is a complicated tale with a central narrative that spans 50 years and tells of loves lost, then re-met, and acts of unselfish friendship and unanticipated betrayal. Salman settles in Rome after fleeing Damascus, charged with a crime he didn't commit. Forty years later, he is drawn back home. But the city has changed. Four decades of dictatorship have leeched vitality from the vivacious Syrians: they survive now by not noticing, not speaking out. Salman is soon on the run again, and again for a crime he didn't commit. He's saved by an old love, Sophia, who has her own story to tell. This is a rich, multilayered novel, in which bad things happen but so do many good things. VERDICT Migrant literature is often suffused with a sense of loss, but Schami's tale is not of regret but of joy, hope, and love, with a worldview that is tolerant and cosmopolitan. For lovers of fiction and strong storytelling.
Can a mother's intervention save her son, falsely accused of murder and on the run in their home city of Damascus? In this hybrid novel-part thriller, part panorama of a troubled land-a Syrian-born German writer explores the characters, clans, culture, and emotions of his nation of origin. Two Syrian tales wind through Schami's (The Calligrapher's Secret, 2011, etc.) epic new work: a scandalous love story between an aging couple, one Christian and one Muslim, and the episodic life of an ex-revolutionary who's successfully relocated to Europe. Karim and Aida are the mature lovers, immersed in a passionate romance despite the disapproval of their neighbors. And then there's Salman Baladi, who, when young and idealistic, discovered socialism and, after the 1963 Syrian political coup, joined the armed resistance. But a crisis of disillusionment ensued and Salman fled. Now settled in Rome with a wife, a son, and a successful food-importing business, he still yearns for home: My soul is in Damascus, wandering the streets of my childhood." So, after 40 years away, when an amnesty is declared, he decides to risk a return visit to Syria, to salve the pain of exile. That trip and its ensuing problems eventually connect his story to Karim and Aida's, the link being Sophia, Salman's mother, who asks Karim to help her son in the same way she rescued Karim years earlier. Elegant and lucid, this literary saga offers a wealth of material, much of it consisting of extended biographies, flashbacks, and romances that pitch a richly remembered past against a corrupted present. Layered with revolution and dictatorship, faiths and philosophies, families and enemies, and many love affairs, the book offers humanity over politics and achieves its greatest impact in the quiet scenes, ranging from an account of torture shot through with black comedy to the unfettered, scandalous joy of a woman riding a bicycle. An impressive, overwhelming story of love, loss, and nostalgia written from an exile's perspective."
Fiction helps us connect with far-away realities, such that stories of individuals can make a land and its history come alive. Schami's story of Salman and his return to Syria after 40 years in Europe feels like a guided tour of the region's sociopolitical landscape. Forced to flee Syria in his youth, Salman is now a successful businessman in Rome with a passion to revisit the land of his childhood. When he's falsely accused of murder during his trip, he is sheltered by his mother Sophia's old love, Karim. In the lives of Sophia, Karim, and Aida, Schami provides glimpses of the religious diversity of Damascus and an understanding of the social dynamics. We also see through the surface normalcy to the brutality of the Assad regime's political repression. Schami's intense focus on singular moments of personal revelation is interwoven with sharp commentary, making for a gripping read. The harshness of life in Damascus and even in Rome and the way the world works shape this novel as it tackles radicalization and tolerance, rootedness and nostalgia, love and loyalty.