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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Dark Side of Love

Rafik Schami

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To purchase The Dark Side of Love

Title: The Dark Side of Love
Author: Rafik Schami
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 853 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Dark Side of Love - US
The Dark Side of Love - UK
The Dark Side of Love - Canada
Die dunkle Seite der Liebe - Deutschland
  • German title: Die dunkle Seite der Liebe
  • Translated by Anthea Bell

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Our Assessment:

B+ : impressive but ultimately too far-flung depiction of Syria in the 1950s and 60s

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ A- 30/6/2005 Martin Halter
The Guardian A 16/5/2009 Robin Yassin-Kassab
The National . 15/10/2009 M.A.Orthofer
The Observer . 21/6/2009 Rachel Aspden
The Washington Times . 11/5/2009 Claire Hopley
Die Zeit A+ 7/10/2004 Fritz J. Raddatz

  Review Consensus:

  Generally fairly enthusiastic -- and some very much so

  From the Reviews:
  • "(M)it diesem Roman ist Schami endgültig einer der am hellsten leuchtenden Steine im bunter werdenden Mosaik der deutschsprachigen Immigrantenliteratur geworden. (...) Doch für Schami ist der Slalom kein Umweg. Anders als der europäische Gesellschaftsroman, der, auf den Spuren von Baron Haussmann, schnurgerade Schneisen der Zerstörung ins Dickicht verwinkelter Städte schlug (auf daß der Flaneur freie Bahn und freie Sicht auf sein Spiegelbild in den Schaufenstern gewinne), bevorzugt er die arabesken Krümmungen, die unökonomischen Kurven und anekdotischen Bögen, und manchmal überspannt er den Bogen auch." - Martin Halter, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "In The Dark Side of Love, Rafik Schami exploits all the resources of the classic realist novel and then goes a little further, forging a new form out of Syrian orality. His basic unit is not chapter or paragraph, but story; a thousand bejewelled anecdotes and tales are buried here, ready to spring, but each is melded with such dazzling surety into the whole that reading the book is always compulsive. (...) The weakest part of the book is its title. The Dark Side of Love illumines almost every side of love, as well as fear, longing, cruelty and lust. Darkness and light alternate like the basalt and marble stripes on Damascene walls, and the novel's structure is just as strong. A book like this requires a less limiting title. I suggest something as expansive, as comprehensive, as War and Peace." - Robin Yassin-Kassab, The Guardian

  • "(A) panoramic novel of 20th-century Syrian life, with a focus on the 1950s and 1960s, that ranges from the clan-dominated countryside to urban Damascus to the enormous Tad prison camp (modelled on the real Tadmor prison in the country’s eastern desert). (...) Schami insistently describes so many cases and consequences of forbidden love because he sees them as symptomatic of Syrian society’s failures. (...) Schami is a wonderful storyteller, but the many stories he presents here do not entirely cohere; indeed, the very heft of the book undermines their individual power." - M.A.Orthofer, The National

  • "Each generation wrestles with another age-old problem: desire thwarted by the dictates of age, status, parental whim, religion, tribe, politics or simply by a pre-existing marriage. The novel's view is as fatalistic as its sympathies are generous (.....) The Dark Side of Love is a fittingly beautiful tribute to this most constant long-distance love affair." - Rachel Aspden, The Observer

  • "The picture of Syrian life and recent history is the great strength of this novel. Mr. Schami would not have achieved it without considerable skill at evoking both Damascus, one of the world's most ancient cities, and Mala, the Christian farming village in the mountains, where the Mushtak-Shahin feud got its start and life continues much as it has for centuries. Mr. Schami's characters often come alive, sometimes alarmingly so. (...) With its feuds, lovers, murders, villains and assorted heroes and heroines, this is a novel to enjoy and to ponder." - Claire Hopley, The Washington Times

  • "Ein Meisterwerk. Ein Wunderding der Prosa, dessen Elemente gemischt sind aus Mythen und Mären, Fabeln, Legenden und einer wunderschönen Liebesromanze -- fliegender Teppich von Sindbad und sehr reale Verwüstungen dieser Erde. Die Kunstfertigkeit, mit der Rafik Schami seinen Zauberteppich geknüpft hat, die dunkle Wolle von Blutrache, Stammesfehden und Familienzwist, durchschossen vom leuchtend schimmernden Silberfaden der Liebe, dabei ständig neue Figuren-Ensembles zusammenfügend zu Bildern ganz unvergesslicher Eindrücklichkeit: schlechterdings bewundernswert. Sein Atem, seine Kraft gehen nie aus" - Fritz J. Raddatz, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[See also my review in The National]

       The Dark Side of Love has 304 chapters, and in the last one -- 'The Last Piece in the Mosaic' -- author Schami steps forward and recounts how he came to write this novel. Its roots go back to 1962, when he saw the 'honour-killing' of a young Muslim woman who had fallen in love with a Christian man. It, and the high toll of 'forbidden love' (which came in so many variations in Syria), inspired him to want to write about it, but it took him some four decades to manage to figure out how he could deal with the material. Specifically, he decided a 'mosaic'-approach was the best structure for the novel -- hence the many short chapters. However, the storyteller in him -- he's written dozens of books, including several novels with an Arabian Nights-like use of stories within stories -- still exerted a strong influence, and The Dark Side of Love is something of a mishmash, careening between a narrative that extends smoothly across several or even many chapters and one-off tangents. Extending over more than eight hundred pages, it's a lot to juggle, for both the author and then the reader.
       The Dark Side of Love is doubly bookended: the very beginning and the very end both describe two sets of action closely: one is the love affair between Farid Mushtak and Rana Shahin -- the central story of the novel --, the other a murder mystery, as at the outset a murdered body is discovered in a basket at a chapel, and only at the very end is the investigation tied up. The story returns to Farid and Rana often enough for readers to follow all their twists and turns, but the murder mystery is almost lost (and certainly largely wasted) at the edges of the novel.
       Farid and Rana are members of two rival clans from the village of Mala, one Orthodox Christian, the other Catholic, and while Farid and Rana meet as children in Damascus (each mistaking the other for Muslim), the reach of family, history, and social mores is almost impossible to escape. Marriages are arranged in this society, and women, especially, have no say. The odds are certainly against the two lovers, and the book opens with Farid asking -- in 1960, when they have already been in love for several years -- "Do you really think our love stands any chance ?", a question Rana is only able to answer definitively almost a decade later, near the end of the book. In between (and before, as well), their affair is a roller-coaster ride, as they try to elude the watchful gazes (and matchmaking) of their families, the passionate enmity between their clans, and life in Syria during a time of almost ridiculous political turmoil (ridiculous because of the parade of cartoonish figures -- all, sadly, based on real-life figures -- that lead the country (or at least head the state)).
       Schami packs it all in in his novel, from the family histories (of mutual hatred and vicious vendettas) to Syria's short-lived political union with Egypt. Love -- and especially its dark side -- is a major part of the novel, as any number of characters suffer for behavior deemed inappropriate (though many others indulge themselves without too many repercussions), but eventually the novel settles into more tradition Bildungsroman-mode, centered on Farid's life. Here biographies overlap, as many of Farid's experiences are those Schami had -- though a number are also more extreme, especially Farid's lengthy imprisonment. The switch to the obviously more personal doesn't entirely work: Farid's story (so much of which is Schami's story) becomes too dominant -- leaving too many other stories sidelined yet also competing for attention.
       Episode by episode, Schami is a natural raconteur, and he offers a fascinating and rich picture of Syria in the 1950s and 1960s, but the mosaic consists of too many pieces that don't all come together. This is all the more noticeable, because several of the storylines, including Farid and Rana's love affair, as well as individual chapters from Farid's life (as well as from any number of the secondary characters) could easily sustain a novel entirely on their own. As is, ultimately, the book is almost overwhelming.
       Worthwhile, but not entirely successful.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 October 2009

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The Dark Side of Love: Reviews: Rafik Schami: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature
  • See Index of Arabic literature

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About the Author:

       Prolific author Rafik Schami (actually: Suheil Fadél) was born in Syria in 1946 and emigrated to Germany in 1971; he writes in German.

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© 2009 the complete review

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