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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Sour Grapes

Zakaria Tamer

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To purchase Sour Grapes

Title: Sour Grapes
Author: Zakaria Tamer
Genre: Stories
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 163 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Sour Grapes - US
Sour Grapes - UK
Sour Grapes - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Syracuse University Press
  • Arabic title: الحصرم
  • Translated by Alessandro Columbu and Mireia Costa Capallera
  • With an Introduction by Nader K. Uthman

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Our Assessment:

B : a large, often well-turned variety

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The National . 1/8/2023 Malcolm Forbes

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sour Grapes brings together 59 tales in which characters fall from grace, struggle in vain to stand tall, or just try to get by amid the brutalities of an oppressive regime and the complexities of everyday life. (...) Some of the stories here are mere sketches that are too short to make an impression. Others start with good intentions but ultimately go nowhere, or are simply too whimsical for their own good. However, the majority are well crafted, richly imagined and full of vitality." - Malcolm Forbes, The National

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:

       Sour Grapes collects fifty-nine very short stories -- none longer than the nine-page Introduction by Nader K. Uthman, and several only a single paragraph, fitting on a single page. They are set in the fictitious Syrian neighborhood of Queiq, and the stories tend towards a dark view of life: many involve or conclude with death, and a disturbing number involve rape. Here people are perfectly willing to engage the services of someone with the: "capacity to make their adversaries drown in a sea of unsurmountable misery". Even where there is a just and happy ending, as in 'The Wizard', in which a five-year-old boy faces a firing squad, someone has to pay with their life.
       There's a good deal of sharp humor too -- but also mostly of a darker shade. So, for example, 'The Night Singer' has Shafiq al-Kawa "singing and playing his oud tirelessly, song after song" at an all-night party, but finds himself relentlessly mocked when he wants to continue after breaking a string on his lute. At home, after walking out, an inspired Shafiq continues singing late into the night, only to be interrupted by a visitor whose appearance amusingly reveals the brutal truth about the musician's talents. Lack of self-awareness, such as Shafiq displays, is common -- down to the example of Zuhair Sabri, in 'The Silent', who frequently finds himself getting slapped yet never sees who the perpetrator is -- and never reveals that this is happening to him, convinced that: "all people got slapped just like him but they didn't say anything".
       Women often suffer because of their position in society and the family, but quite a few at least takes some matters into their own hands. In 'Eight O'Clock' the strict parents of Hanan al-Mulqi think she spends her time diligently studying while she instead keeps astonishingly busy with other, shocking things. In 'The Enterprise' Mustafa explains to his wife Shahira that: "every year I need to cheat on you at least once to realize how much I love you", to which she eventually responds in kind, leading to the situation where:

     Mustafa didn't dare to divorce her because her father was wealthy and generous. They carried on living together as husband and wife, both with their daily attempts to prove their love to each other.
       There are elements of the supernatural and magical realism -- handled well by Tamer in not trying to explain them but simply presenting them as is, as in 'Waiting for a Woman', in which the main figure, Faris al-Muaz, is born literally headless (and: "Contrary to what the doctors had predicted, Faris didn't die and lived a long life"). In 'The Holiday', Diab al-Ahmad: "was thankful for the large number of books in his home and was even more delighted when men, women, and children came out of their pages" (among other things: "They tore their pages apart playfully and they made hats, boats, and planes out of them"). In 'An Empty Grave' a bored general who dreams of a different more satisfying life is transformed into a hyena; in 'The Green Bird' Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi undergoes repeated metamorphoses -- into lamb, cat, bird and even plane.
       Tamer also does well with the unexpected turns in his stories, as people react differently than one might expect, as in 'The Green Bird' , when:
The plane flew away from those torn corpses and hovered over a prison yard where the guards were beating the inmates with hard sticks. The plane razed down the prison, and the inmates promptly set out to build a new one with taller walls.
       Among the nicest such turns comes in 'The Runaway', where Najat al-Harabi runs away from her family home, leaving a letter of explanation behind for her grandmother that on the one hand is simply perplexing, on the other explains so much.
       If a few of the pieces can feel too pared down, overall Tamer's straightforward and concise presentation of situations and events work to good effect. Even the slightly stilted translation seems almost fitting for these stories. There is a somewhat sour feel to many of these stories, too, and so also to the collection as a whole but that's also part of what makes the pieces intriguing, as Tamer offers few of the usual lazy satisfactions of neighborhood/small-town-fiction but still offers a well-formed world (and world-view) that is consistently (if often also disturbingly) compelling.
       A solid collection, in comfortably bite-sized pieces.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 August 2023

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Sour Grapes: Reviews: Other books by Zakaria Tamer under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature

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About the Author:

       Syrian author Zakaria Tamer (زكريا تامر) was born in 1931. He has lived in London since 1981.

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© 2023-2024 the complete review

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