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Effendi: the Second Arabesk

by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

(Earthlight, £12.99, 376 pages, hardback, published 2 April 2002. Pocket Books, £6.99, 376 pages, paperback, first published 2002, published 2 February 2003.)

More murder and intrigue in El Iskandryia as Ashraf al-Mansur, now the city's Chief of Detectives, investigates the past dealings of wealthy industrialist Hamzah Quitrimala. cover scanSomeone is about to dish the dirt on Hamzah Effendi, and has left him some grisly advance notice of the fact. But why? And why now? And, of course, who? It falls to Ashraf Bey to oversee Hamzah Effendi's trial, under international law, for war crimes, which is no easy matter since he's in love with the businessman's daughter, an arranged marriage to whom he previously rejected. It also doesn't help that he has to raise his nine-year-old niece Hani in the meantime, or that he still doesn't really know if he is who everyone else says he is ...

It's hard to imagine the Arabesk series working the other way around, with an Arabic young offender of dubious provenance on the lam, arriving in America only to be told that he's the barely legitimate son of the President, and heir to all the power his whim can handle. The rigid tradition and hierarchy of Islamic society, as Grimwood would have it, paradoxically makes such iconoclasm possible, and who are we to argue when there's such fun to be had? Unlike its hypocritical Western counterparts, El Iskandryia practically wears its double standards on its sleeve, which makes it a natural home to the ambiguous Ashraf, and gives the Arabesk books' moral topology a few kinks to boot. Besides, the exoticism of El Isk, the nominal centre of Grimwood's parallel-future Ottoman Empire, provides a geographical and cultural backdrop a damn sight more interesting than the more familiar United States.

Pashazade was Ashraf Bey's book, and as the title announces this is similarly Hamzah Effendi's book, but it'd be wrong to suggest that the narrative of Effendi rests only on one or two characters. Grimwood has made good use of the opportunity to give prominence to characters other than his lead, and this extends to greater depth for Raf's household staff, and several juicy scenes for El Isk's governor, the rough-edged General Koenig Pasha. Hani's relationship with Raf, now her only family, is explored to good effect, as are her talents as a budding technological pirate. There doesn't seem to be very much for Zara, formerly Raf's intended wife, to do, but a lot more attention is given to Hamzah's son Kamil, who is better known by another name. And, of course, there's Hamzah himself. His formerly shadowy past is thrown into sharp relief, and while it's not made explicit in the text, there's a great deal of similarity between Hamzah and Ashraf -- two men with criminal pasts who've made good. Of course, Raf has risen in Iskandryian society a lot more quickly than Hamzah, and without nearly so much effort on his part, but the parallels are there, and maybe this is why the two seem drawn to influence each other's lives so greatly.

Here we venture into the world of uncertain identity. I imagine some final revelations regarding Raf will be forthcoming in Felaheen; for now, the ambiguity remains. But although Raf still has doubts, he seems a lot more prepared in Effendi to play out the roles he's given, both as El Isk's Chief of Detectives and as heir apparent to the Emir of Tunis. Not that he has much choice, since he has an orphaned niece to protect and an industrialist's daughter to woo -- like a hypnotist's suggestion, the identity of Ashraf Bey has taken root in Raf's head while he's been distracted, until he seems almost ready to believe it himself. Almost, but not quite. But then, if everyone else believes it, and since he's already walking the walk, why can't he genuinely be/become the Ashraf al-Mansur he is supposed to be? The question of Raf's identity as a thing constructed by other people is here held up -- not openly, perhaps, but held up nevertheless -- for comparison with the example of Hamzah Effendi, whose present identity is entirely the work of his own laborious fabrication. Life has worked out for Hamzah -- should we infer that the same, or the opposite applies to Raf? And although Raf appears already to have outrun his former existence, what might happen if that existence should resurface, as Hamzah's does here? For now, these are only hypothetical questions; let Felaheen answer or ignore them as Jon Courtenay Grimwood sees fit.

It's sometimes hard to keep in mind that Ashraf Bey isn't a "good guy", just the most palatable of El Isk's many ruthless bastards, but he's such a compelling ruthless bastard that you can't help wishing him well. I hesitate to describe him as endearing. Effendi is an engrossing, well-written step towards a happy ending for Raf, but what kind of happy ending remains to be seen.

Review by John Toon.

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