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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Variations on Night and Day

Abdelrahman Munif

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To purchase Variations on Night and Day

Title: Variations on Night and Day
Author: Abdelrahman Munif
Genre: Novel
Written: 1989 (Eng. 1993)
Length: 333 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Variations on Night and Day - US
Variations on Night and Day - UK
Variations on Night and Day - Canada
Das Spiel von Licht und Schatten - Deutschland
  • Arabic title: تقاسيم الليل والنهار
  • Translated by Peter Theroux
  • Variations on Night and Day is the third in the Cities of Salt-trilogy (which is actually a quintet, but only the first three volumes were translated into English)

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Our Assessment:

B : a creative variation on the historical novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 28/9/1993 Judith Caesar
The LA Times . 18/8/1993 Jonathan Kirsch
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 20/10/2009 Angela Schader
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/9/1993 Fouad Ajami
Rev. of Middle East Studies . 28:2 (12/1994) Roger Allen

  From the Reviews:
  • "Tracing the shrewd, affable, but ruthless Khureybet's rise to power from his assassination of a rival clan leader to his crowning as an absolute monarch backed by Western power, the novel provides an entertaining and disturbing alternative history of the founding of modern Saudi Arabia. Avoiding both myth and cliche, it is a more complex and accurate history than much that has been labeled nonfiction. (...) In spite of the novel's relevance, many American readers may find it slow reading. Peter Theroux can translate the Arabic language, as he does very ably, but it is difficult to translate a whole cultural and historical experience." - Judith Caesar, Christian Science Monitor

  • "As it turns out, Variations does not reach much beyond the sultan's court, and the machinations of Western oil imperialism are never openly described. Indeed, the book is characterized by a certain oblique irony, and Munif is much too subtle, much too elegant, to resort to caricature or propaganda. As a result, however, it is sometimes difficult to tell how Munif himself feels about the events he describes." - Jonathan Kirsch, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Die sinnliche Beschreibung weitgehend aussparend, ist der Text ganz auf die Charaktere, auf Gedanken und Gespräche fokussiert. Irritierend, aber auch raffiniert arbeitet Munif mit den ständigen Unschärfen der Wahrnehmung und Interpretation, die sich sowohl im engeren Rahmen eines intriganten Fürstenhofs wie auch im weiteren einer durch keinerlei öffentliche Informationskanäle gespeisten Gesellschaft ergeben; und ebenso im arabisch-britischen Austausch, wo keine Seite ihre Karten ganz aufdecken will und kulturelle Differenzen für zusätzliche Missverständnisse sorgen." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(T)hat is the recurring problem with Mr. Munif's work, this uneasy mix of history and novelistic license. Hamilton is made into a figure of consequence to serve Mr. Munif's political purpose: the Westerner manipulating the native power structure. But in real life Philby was a bit player in the court, and in the drama, of King Ibn Saud. Mr. Munif's work is less history than docudrama. Likewise, his fiction suffers. Made to carry so heavy a political load, his characters lack the intimacy and the ambiguity of fiction." - Fouad Ajami, The New York Times Book Review

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:

       Although the third in the Cities of Salt-series, Variations on Night and Day covers a period before the previous two volumes. It is the origins story of the country we know as Saudi Arabia -- thinly disguised in the Cities of Salt-series as Mooran -- and whereas the previous installment, The Trench, opened with the death of the Ibn Saud-figure, Sultan Khureybit, Variations on Night and Day is very much his story, chronicling his consolidation of power (and territory) to create the modern state of Mooran/Saudi Arabia. Ibn Saud had many wives -- marriage being one of the convenient ways to solidify ties with other families and tribes, expanding his sphere of influence -- and an enormous number of children, including, reportedly, over forty sons; the two most prominent sons of Khureybit in the novel are Khazael (the real-life Saud, who would succeed his father and reign for a decade) and Fanar (the real-life Faisal, who would force out Saud and assume the throne), but in Variations on Night and Day Khazael is off-site most of the time, while Fanar is a central figure; in no small part the novel is a Bildungsroman chronicling Fanar being groomed for his future responsibilities (far off though they are here).
       One more figure is given a very prominent place in the story, an Englishman here called Hamilton, who is modeled on St. John Philby (yes, traitor Kim's dad). He is a trusted advisor to Khureybit here, helping him navigate the complex relationship with Britain that is vital to the success of their endeavors, as Munif presents the early-twentieth century (re)shaping of the Middle East as very much guided by a Britain seeking to preserve its regional interests and influence. Even as a British representative, Hamilton is supportive of Khureybit's interests, eager to help him consolidate power, and he serves as a useful and adroit middleman -- in contrast to some of the official representatives who are posted to the region. Khureybit and Hamilton work together well -- and Khureybit entrusts much of Fanar's education (in the broadest sense) to Hamilton; so also, Fanar travels to England several times over the many years, with Hamilton helping guide him through this very different culture. Hamilton also -- like the real-life Philby - eventually converts to Islam (the big question, after he announces his intentions to the Sultan, being whether or not he has to get his foreskin lopped off).
       (Hamilton is not the first trusted English adviser to Khureybit: at one point the Sultan also recalls how hard he had been hit by the death of one Fowler, at the Battle of Rehaiba -- helping date early events in the novel, as Fowler is clearly William Shakespear, who got himself killed at the Battle of Jarrab, in 1915. Fowler's death is also one reason why Khureybit comes to insist that Hamilton steer clear of the fighting -- there's a lot fighting --, a caution that also extends to Fanar, who is sent into battle, but only under controlled and (relatively) safe circumstances. )
       Variations on Night and Day chronicles Khureybit's -- and Mooran's -- rise. Early on, Khureybit is just one among many, many local leaders, as Mooran's: "hundred princely emirs fought over their shares as eagles fight". Aligning himself with the British -- cautiously --, who could provide the funds and arms that gave Khureybit a leg up on the competition, Khureybit slowly accumulates more power and territory. Conflict, large and small scale, is a constant, and Munif's title gives some sense of the feel of the novel, as much of it can seem like a near-endless sequence of variations, on events that are fundamentally as similar as day and night are -- an almost inevitable, predictable routine, even as the details of course can vary greatly from day to day and night to night.
       Those (very) familiar with early twentieth century Arabian Peninsula history will recognize many of the clashes and the actors -- not least the capture of Mecca from Hussein bin Ali -- but the use of fictional place- and personal names (and absence of almost any specific dating) makes it rather difficult for most readers to compare fact and fiction. This is, no doubt, also partially Munif's intent: not only does he not mean to provide a historical record (for which he could have used the actual names, places, and dates), he means to show how unreliable even ostensibly factual documentation is. His observation about one specific conflict easily applies to everything he is chronicling:

     The Awali War was hard to record or describe, because its three battles were extremely complex and confusing, the interests at stake were murky and convoluted, and reports of war were highly contradictory. There were discrepancies and conflicts of narrators, the shifting positions of the fighting forces, and the paucity of surviving eyewitnesses -- no need to wonder why there were so few ! History had become a huge assemblage of lies and fabrications, much as history is merely the history of the victors, from their own perspective, with a tendency to be kind to themselves, rich in chicanery and irony, recounting one episode in many very different ways -- not always ascribable to evil intent or neglect, but to the injuries of time and disputed sources, the accumulation of small lies and the illusions that, in the end, created the illusion of absolute truth, or the one truthful telling of an illusory history !
       So also Munif's presentation of events differs markedly from that found in traditional Western historical fiction. The lack of specificity can leave readers feeling at sea, yet also provides a different -- and in some ways more accurate -- sense of such conflicts and warfare, not focused on the details of the actual fighting but on aftereffects and consequences. If Munif perhaps frustrates the reader with his unwillingness to flesh out battle-scenes, he nevertheless instead manages to convey the 'big picture'. Variations on Night and Day effortlessly spans decades in a not particularly long novel, and does capture the incredible evolution and transformation of Mooran, as well as the most significant forces in shaping it -- led by, in Munif's reading, Khureybit and Hamilton. (Note, however, that Philby is widely considered not to have had as prominent a role as Hamilton has here; nevertheless, as stand-in for British influence, the figure and role of Hamilton here seem to be a valid fictional choice.)
       Interestingly, despite his suspicion of official record(s), Munif does at several points quote at some length from Hamilton's writings and recollections -- presumably actual quotes from Philby's own extensive writings. It's an odd, almost jarring gloss on some of the events; it also stands in amusing contrast to Hamilton's own (of course also self-serving) words to Khureybit, when he explains to the Sultan why the new British consul, Dennis Eagleton, is so ill-equipped to deal with events (and people) on-site:
His British Majesty's worst civil servants are the ones spoiled by books. They see everything in the light of what they have read, erroneously and maliciously, and instead of the world amending what they learned, they want to amend the world by imposing their learning upon it.
       Unsurprisingly, there's very little reading in Variations on Night and Day (though there is some poetry-reciting), and very little mention of books; the world here can almost only be understood by experience -- and it is this experience that Munif tries to convey (yes, in writing ...). So also the education here, of Khureybit's many children, is not bookish. The Sultan convenes grand get-togethers with the kids -- or tries to; it's not always his biggest priority -- where he tries to convey his wisdom to the little ones, while Fanar is also educated largely through experience, rather than in a classroom.
       Variations on Night and Day is also a novel of court life. While the action takes readers all across Mooran, and abroad, much is centered on the Rawdh Palace, a huge ever-shifting and growing complex where the royal family lives. It is a small -- or not so small -- world unto itself, full of intrigue, a surprising amount of pranks, as well as crime, both petty and serious (large-scale theft and murder are not all that uncommon). Khureybit's many wives must live together there; it's telling that one way to know who is most in favor at any given moment is which one Khureybit chooses to take with him on his expeditions: Rawdh Palace is home base, but only in being taken away from it does a wife find true approbation.
       Moving Fanar (and his sister) to live under Khureybit's wing when they are children is also a major move, and for many years Khureybit is careful in how he handles their uncle, in a quiet but not so subtle struggle for power and influence. Here, too, the domestic has ramifications for the larger political scene. (With his ridiculously huge family, Khureybit of course does not make it easy for himself -- or them.)
       Variations on Night and Day is not a story of inexorable rise. Khureybit's path has ups and terrible downs, and his ultimate triumph is far from assured. Munif presents this rollercoaster quite well -- including in the figure that ultimately stabilizes Khureybit's financial footing, Othman al-Olayan (presumably a stand-in for Abdullah Suleiman) -- which includes numerous ... creative steps. Money is always an issue, and for much of the time Khureybit is short of it; his constant struggles with the British also revolve around this (and their attempted balancing act, among all the parties they support (or want to control) in the region).
       The novel is well summed-up in the observations:
     The Sultanate's problems were innumerable and very complicated. The English were deeply implicated in these problems
       Munif conveys the sense of complexity, without losing himself in the minutiæ: Variations on Night and Day is a big picture novel, with only some of the pivotal details presented more closely. It is a fine character portrait of Khureybit -- even as much about him as a person remains a mystery --, with Munif presenting him well (if not too specifically), as in, for example, describing his methods:
     Khureybit, on the other side, played the game with skill and authority. He struck and struck hard, always unexpectedly, and never let his adversary rest for a day. He constantly advanced, and not only forward -- sometimes backward, to clear some positions, sometimes merely as a ploy
       Munif's narrative in some ways mirrors that, for better and worse: Variations on Night and Day keeps the reader off-balance, too.
       The portraits of Fanar and Hamilton are also very good, but Variations on Night and Day is also crowded with other figures, many playing relatively minor or only occasional roles. It swamps the narrative some: this is a narrative that could have been more expansive, giving everyone more room. Indeed, even Fanar and Hamilton -- even Khureybit -- could do with being fleshed out more.
       Variations on Night and Day is teeming with characters and events, but Munif is at his best when he zooms in on smaller scenes. He's particularly good on Khureybit dealing with other people, the Sultan an expert at when to remain silent and avoiding committing himself; Hamilton, too, is a fine figure, and the two help shape Fanar into the man he becomes (as well as, for example, then guiding him when he is shattered after the death of his wife, allowing him to drift into some escapism before setting him back on course).
       Variations on Night and Day isn't quite as satisfying as the earlier volumes in the series -- and indeed suffers some in direct comparison -- but is still a solid and worthwhile work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 October 2020

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Variations on Night and Day: Reviews: ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Munīf: Other books by ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Munīf under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Saudi author ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Munīf (عبد الرحمن المنيف) lived 1933 to 2004.

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