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Masai Dreaming Hardcover – May 30, 1995
From Publishers Weekly
In a striking fusion of cultural journeys, Booker Prize finalist Cartwright (Look At It This Way) jump-cuts between past and present, Africa and Europe, the gentle Masai and a French-Jewish family who met a horrifying fate in the Nazi death camps. In the late 1930s,Claudia Cohn-Casson had been a dedicated anthropologist gathering data on Masai customs when an epic lion hunt she staged for filming ended in tragedy. Two Masai warriors lay slain; cameramen gloated over the carnage, snapping "fantastic" footage. Months later, this colonial cruelty found a parallel in Nazi barbarism as Claudia was seized in Paris and deported to Auschwitz with her brother and eminent father, a "collabo" doctor who thought himself safe. Narrating these events as well as the present-day action is screenwriter Tim Curtiz, touring the heart of Africa to demystify Claudia's life and death in a film intended to re-create many truths ("we are all Jews, all Nazis, all humans capable of anything. The movie must speak to everybody... "). But Curtiz works for a rich, sybaritic and eccentric producer who considers casting his transvestite mistress as Claudia. Or will he cast Julia Roberts, with Mel Gibson as Claudia's other, Anglo lover? Yesterday and today flow seamlessly into one another as the novel replays events in an ongoing now, like a movie that unreels, dreamlike, before the spellbound spectator.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Journalist Tim Curtiz journeys to Africa to write a screenplay about Claudia Cohn-Casson, an anthropologist who worked with the Masai and was betrayed to the SS when she returned to France near the end of World War II. In Kenya, Curtiz discovers three elderly people whose lives have been touched by Cohn-Casson: an English adventurer and aviator who had been her lover, a dowager who had observed this relationship, and the Masai laibon, or tribal leader, whose brother was executed by the British, perhaps because of his relationship with the anthropologist. Woven throughout Curtiz's account of his research and self-examination are two other stories. The first could be perceived either as Curtiz's finished screenplay or as Cohn-Casson's actual biography. This tale of deception, misunderstanding, and betrayal over cataclysmic moral issues is juxtaposed against the second story, concerning S. O. Letterman, an over-the-hill Hollywood producer who is bankrolling and casting the film. Letterman uses this position to seduce a young French actress, who has a few secrets of her own. A fascinating, multitextured novel. George Needham
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Claudia's theory had been that it is error to think that there is a progressive evolution from the primitive to the civilized.
It is a well-crafted novel, but is one of those which moves backward and forward in time. The first mention of what happened to Claudia is in Chapter 2, in which she is in a cattle truck on the way to the camps - a vision of how barbaric a so-called civilized society can be. Eleven chapters then intervene before the next brief - and, as it turns out, cleverly misleading - mention of her fate, to be followed by many more that make no reference to it.
These chapters are taken up with Tim's arrival in Masai country, a description of its sights and smells (he is strong on smells), of Masai customs (above all, what their cattle means to them, and, crucially to this story, their code of honour which apparently forbids them to lie, whatever the consequences), a little of Masai myths and of the colonial and post-colonial history of Tanzania, and of his making enquiries with any Masai and with a couple of European old stagers who had known Claudia. In the first part of the book these chapters, in turn, are interleaved leaved with others about Tim's graphic memories of his steamy and jealous relationship, back in London, with his girl-friend Victoria.
The author also departs frequently from the Tim's narrative to tell us, in scenes which Tim would not have witnessed, about S.O.Letterman. Through Letterman we are given a take on Hollywood values and morals. He goes to Paris to choose a French actress to play Claudia, and this gives Cartwright the opportunity for descriptions of the city and for reflections about Parisians, including their reactions to the period of collaboration.
All this is told very well, but in quite a leisurely and even occasionally a repetitive manner: the central plot moves forward slowly - probably intentionally so, as there are references to the Masai not leading the rushed lives of urban Europeans - and it gathers pace only about half way through the book.
Claudia, Tim finds out, had made quite an impact, both on a young Masai and on a then young British major. She had wanted to be part of the community she was observing; but she had allowed herself to be instrumental in the intrusion of an American film crew to film a lion hunt, and that would be the trigger for all the events that follow.
Whatever Tim now learns, he is inclined to turn in his mind's eye to how it would look on film.
Eventually we learn the circumstances which led to Claudia's apparently so unaccountable return to Nazi-occupied France in 1944 (where her father was still living, wearing the yellow star but refusing to see any danger to himself). We also guess, right at the end, how Tim could have reconstructed those months between her return to France and her deportation.
Throughout the book, there are Tim's philosophical reflections about all manner of topics, from those arising out of anthropology to human relationships. I found these heavy going at times.
On the surface this the story of journalist Tim Curtiz's search for the truth about Claudia Cohn-Casson, a French Jewish researcher of the Masai, who was betrayed to the Nazis when she returned home in the final days of World War II. Curtiz is planning to write a screenplay for an "Out of Africa"-type film to be shot in Kenya, and in his attempt to understand the "real" Claudia, he interviews both an elderly British ex-patriate, Tom Fairfax, who was Claudia's lover, and the elderly laibon of the Masai community which Claudia studied. Both men suffered great losses as a result of their contact with Claudia, something with which Tim Curtiz, also suffering a loss, can identify.
As the narrative unfolds, it seems intentionally to follow the hypnotic, circular dancing patterns of the Masai as it twists, leaps, and turns back upon itself, while gathering in the details of Claudia's life, the mystery of her disappearance, and the complications in the lives of the subordinate characters. The elasticity of Cartwright's prose is perfectly suited to this style, as he varies his sentence lengths to control the overall pace and moves from positively lyrical descriptions of the African savannah to turgidly doom-filled passages describing the cattle cars transporting Jews to the camps.
Award-winning author Cartwright deserves to have this excellent novel reprinted for U.S. distribution. Until that happens, however, interested readers might want to check it out at Amazon's site in the U.K., where it is readily available. END