A trip down memory lane takes me to my first time in Paris. I had read the literature, watched the movies, felt that I knew the city inside and out. I was in love with Paris before setting foot in it. It was going to be the trip where everything, EVERTYHING, was going to be not only beautiful and perfect but above all romantic; Single at the time (Mr. Fabulous and I had not met yet), I hoped a Hugo, with a silent H, was waiting to realise that it was me he’d been waiting for all his life. Needless to say of course, reality dealt my imagination the blow everyone could see coming, except myself. Safe to say that I soon snapped out of it and have very fond memories each time I go back for a visit. Lucky for Mr. Fabulous, I never met an Hugo, with a silent H.
Other tourists, particularly the Japanese, are not as lucky. When these tourists’ expectations of Paris fail to add up to the one in their imaginations some of them have suffered such sadness, such acute feelings of persecution and shock that they have had to be transported back home under medication. Psychologists have coined this little known, but quite real affliction, ‘The Paris Syndrome’. Tahir Shah, one of my favorite authors, has just written a novel based on this most fascinating and bizarre malady of the mind.
‘Paris Syndrome’, the novel, sees its Japanese heroine, ten-year-old Miki Suzuki from Sendai listening to her grandfather’s describe a place where ‘all the women were beautiful and dressed in the finest gowns,’ and ‘all the men were handsome, like movie stars’. The city where ‘the sun never stopped shining and the warm air was filled with butterflies and birdsong.’ The city, of course, was Paris.
Miki’s grandfather had been to Paris on a short visit in the decade after the War and on the last day of his trip, had glimpsed a coin pouch in Louis Vuitton’s shop window. It was ‘the most exquisite thing’ he had ever seen. But the shop was closed and he had had to leave home the next day without buying it. And ‘almost every day which has passed since then’ he has thought of his lost chance.
Twenty years pass and Miki is now selling discounted beauty products door-to-door for the dubious Angel Flower Beauty Company. She has never forgotten her grandfather’s story and his dream has become hers and intensified in such a way that the French capital becomes to her not only a symbol of all that was good and right but also the place where she knew she was destined to find true love and happiness.
Things are not easy for Miki. At home her apartment is freezing and she can barely afford a heater. Things are not much nicer at work. She is assigned an officious angry boss named Kiato Yamato aka Pun Pun who seems to dislike her although she ‘was kind in a deep down way, a quality that endeared her to almost everyone she met’.
However, destiny steps in (probably egged on by Miki’s prayers to her ancestors) and her life changes forever. Her company, run by a man feared more than Pun Pun, announces a competition whereby the sales person who manages to sell the most products will be sent on an all-expenses paid trip to the city of Paris. As expected, Miki wins the competition accidentally becoming a celebrity in the process. Accompanied by two of the company’s female customers, her boss Pun Pun, his mistress Noemi and the Chairman of the company Miki is on her way with two promises; to buy the pouch at LV for her grandfather and the other one she’d promised to the sales clerk at the Kinokuniya bookshop: to visit the Nissim de Camondo Museum.
Once Miki sets foot in the French capital, ‘Paris Syndrome’, the affliction, rears its head as an ugly snake ready to deal Miki the mother of all bites.
‘The Paris Syndrome’ is on the face of it a very straight forward, entertaining tale of the adventures of a young, single woman out to make right on a vow to her grandfather. However, it is also a tale with a dark sinister undertone. The media plays a big part in the unfolding of events in this story and the reader is left with an uncomfortable nauseating sensation that there are powers that be who control what stories the masses should care about, and that truth is not high up on the list of priorities when in the pursuit of a really good story. Looking at the phenomena of sensationalism in today’s media, it is a message that transcends the pages of the book and resonates quite loudly with the reader. The message is clear: media highlights heroes but it can also destroy lives and shatter dreams in the blink of an eye.
Miki’s encounter with the complete opposite of everything she believed about Paris drives her mad and many readers will connect with her pain and suffering. When Miki is in the presence of Dr. Mesmer (whose patients were almost all suffering from some variety or other of Paris Syndrome), one gets the impression that the problem might have surpassed that of ‘The Paris Syndrome’ and moved on to deeper, darker psychological terrain. It is a fascinating process to see the ebb and flow of these emotions and the understanding that the author has of the limits to which the mind can be stretched and tested.
‘The Paris Syndrome’ is a very interesting book indeed. Tahir Shah is at his best doing what he does best: spinning a tale of fantastical proportions. There is misery and gaiety, ugliness and charm, kindness and ignorance, fear and courage and a very big blast. I loved it!
In 2007, we bought a house. As anyone who's ever gone through this will tell you, this is one of the most stressful times in one's life. Months of paperwork, seemingly endless days playing a guessing game of will they/won't they, what ifs and what-nots. When you think you can wait no longer, the house keys arrive allowing you to expel that long bottled-up sigh of relief. Unknown to you the worst is yet to come.
We had bought a house but not a new one and so began the journey of refurbishment, of planning permissions, builders, plumbers, electricians and decorators. You name them and we had him/her go through our house. Many tears and cups of tea later and the house was relatively livable and so the family moved in. It was around that time, while on a relaxing trip to the local bookstore that I came across Tahir Shah's 'The Caliph's House'; the true account of the author's move to Casablanca and the relaying of events during the restoration of their property. Problems with our property seemed like a walk in the park compared to what the Shahs had gone through. I was hooked not only by the masterful narration, but also by the gripping tale of the house itself. They had had to do battle against medieval evil spirits for God's sake and here I was crying over a few rotted bricks and collapsed pipes. I had to remind myself over and over that this was a real story, about a real family, in a real country. It was the humour amid the chaos that won me over and when a year later the sequel 'In Arabian Nights' came out I rushed to read it as well. This book brought to light stories of the Tuareg, the Sufi men and other eccentric stories from the Sahara. It is a book that my father-in-law particularly enjoyed which is saying a lot by a man who has read all there is to read by Tahir Shah's father, Idris Shah.
And so we arrive to 'Timbuctoo' and it seems only right that Tahir Shah should be the one to tell this story. It is a tale about a tale that takes place close to the author's backyard. Tahir Shah's latest release is based on the true account of the illiterate American sailor, Robert Adams, who is shipwrecked along the African coast and taken as a slave in the Great Zahara and then to the city of 'Timbuctoo'; Three years later he is ransomed to the British Consul and makes his way to London where he tells the horrific tale of his enslavement and captivity.
Timbuctoo (also Timbuktu) is a legendary city presumed by Europeans at the time to be made in its entirety of gold and to which expedition after expedition had been sent to retrieve its vast fortune only for the armies to face complete annihilation. When Robert Adams relays his story to The Royal African Committee, his story is not easily believed or received especially that an expedition headed by a Major Peddie has set off for Timbuctoo and large investments are reliant on its success. The narration is marred with suspicion right from the start not only that it is relayed by an American (the British were on the verge of losing the American colony) but also that the accounts relayed by Robert Adams seemed to be contradicting even refuting all that the British knew about Timbuctoo.
The historical bit of the book on which 'Timbuctoo' is based upon is fascinating but what Tahir Shah also sheds light on is the state of the Empire at the time of this narrative. The Regency era extending from 1811 when King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son The Prince of Wales, ruled by proxy until his father's death in 1820 therefore becoming George IV is a time of excess for the aristocracy and Shah manages to exemplify these excesses in the Prince Regent's eccentric demands and disregard for anyone but himself and his pleasures. He also portrays the vast wealth accumulated by the aristocracy and those in connection with them. Yet, underneath all the glitz and glamour of the society's creme de la creme lies squalor, indecency, immorality and filth. Many times in the book as Robert Adams describes the treacherous conditions and hardships of his captivity, we are reminded that human brutality is never far away from home where the desecration of tombs is taking place, the public exhibition of hangings is a much celebrated event to ogle at and public dissections of dead cadavers hoards in the masses. There is also the injustice of imprisonment in places such as Marshalsea where episodes of squalor, filth and injustice are rampant, where there is little regard to human decency. Time and again Robert Adams is shocked to encounter and to re-live such conditions which he thought he had escaped from when a slave in the Zahara not believing that they could be happening in a civilized white Christian society such as England.
The novel is gripping and packed full with themes of slavery, adventure, conspiracy, murder, and at its heart is not one but two love stories. The first between Robert Adams and his wife Christina and the other between the English Mr. Cavendish and his cousin Beattie. The novel also reads like a who's who of the Regency era with many actual characters making an appearance in Shah's novel: The botanist Sir Joseph Banks, the writer Jane Austen, Lord Byron, and Lady Caroline Lamb to name a few.
This is a fabulous read. Exciting, interesting and fascinating but what makes it that extra bit special is the author's enthusiasm and dedication to the project. This is a novel that inspires hope when it seems that all hope has dried up and it is a true testament to the resilience of the human spirit even when all the odds are stacked against it and yet it fights and yet it endures. This is one adventure not to be missed.
To hear it from the lion's mouth as some would say, do check out Tahir Shah's YouTube clip. Click HERE!