Guest Post: Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Pashazade by Tom Pollock
Friday, February 25, 2011
[Editor's note: We're very pleased to have this guest review from Tom Pollock, who spends most of his spare time making up monsters that jump out at you from around street corners. You can read more of his ramblings about stories, plus the odd bit of fiction or verse, at wingsmith.livejournal.com and you can follow him at @tomhpollock. We do.]
A skinny white kid with blond dreds steps off a plane in north Africa. Behind him is a stint in a Seattle prison. Before him: El Iskandriya: the trading capital of Ottoman North Africa. In his hand is a white diplomatic passport, a carte blanche that announces him to be His Excellency, Ashraf al-Mansur, the son of the Emir of Tunis, and by that distinguished heritage accorded the rank of bey. It’s a passport, not just into the country, but into a noble (if virtually broke) family, and an arranged marriage to the daughter of a local gangster.
The trouble is, Raf has no more idea than we do that whether that passport's telling the truth or not.
Pashazade, is, technically, an alternative history. The first world war never got past the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire's still going strong and North Africa owes its allegiance to Stambul. But the details of Grimwood's counterfactual are elegantly backgrounded in casual references to Kaiser and Ren Schmiss. Indeed the more casual they are, the more effective. The very fact that the de facto regent of Egypt is called 'General Saeed Koenig Pasha' bespeaks a rich and complex intertwining of Ottoman and German bloodlines and histories.
But Grimwood doesn't bother explicitly unpicking the historical divergence. The 'What If' scenario is not really his concern. Where the book engages with politics overtly, it's with modern, real world issues like female circumcision and biochemical patents.
Nor despite appearances, is the book really about a murder mystery. Albeit that there is most certainly a murder and a mysterious one at that, at the heart of the plot.
No, at its heart, for me at least, Pashazade is a coming of age story.
This is Raf's story, and we're chucked into the middle of it right along with him. His attempts to solve the murder of his aunt in El Isk are intercut with flashbacks from his past at boarding school (including some surprisingly hot first sexual encounters), and later his time in a Seattle triad. Gradually from these fragments, a picture emerges of this complex and troubled man in the Armani suit.
Pashazade's real heart, however, lies in charting Raf’s growth into his future, rather than a Bourne style investigation into his past.
When the Chief of Detectives is assassinated, Raf takes his place, and is immersed in an unfamiliar role, in a city both beautiful and frightening (because, as physically lethal as Raf is, he still has plenty to fear). He steps up, acts up, and plays it by ear: the very essence of coming of age.
More tellingly, when Raf becomes the guardian of his recently bereaved niece, Hani, it's his essential childlikeness in spite of everything that lets him connect to her. Sitting with her on the kitchen floor, he listens to her describe how she talks to her toy dog. He understands, because he has an imaginary friend too, or rather, this being Grimwood, he has a fox surgically inserted into his imagination by his mother, who acts as a guide and surrogate parent to him. Raf tries to take care of Hani the way he wasn’t taken care of: protected, but not patronised. Reassured, but also respected. He doesn’t always succeed, but the way he tries is genuinely touching.
There's all manner of other things to love in this book. El Isk is a killer setting: Casablanca on cybertech, all sun-blasted corniche and sharp, threatening shadows. The supporting cast are striking and individual, especially fierce heiress Zara and her gangster father, but none of them overshadows the lead.
I love this book. If it has a flaw, its that the Grimwood's unapologetic immersion of the reader into the fragmented life of his protagonist can be a little bewildering. But it's worth sticking with. Because at its heart this is a book about how Ashraf Bey makes himself. And if you're as confused by him as he is at the start, you'll appreciate the identity he creates at the finish even more.