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Variations on Night and Day Paperback – November 1, 1994

4.2 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Jordanian-born attorney Munif, former editor of the Baghdad-based monthly Oil and Development , brings his epic Cities of Salt trilogy full circle in its closing volume. Cities of Salt and The Trench , set in the Sultanate of Mooran (a thinly disguised version of Saudi Arabia) from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s, traced the effects of the discovery of oil by American and British groups. Variations covers the prelude to that period in the early decades of this century, showing how the Sultan Khureybit consolidated his power and created Mooran as a modern nation-state. By moving his chronology backwards, Munif instills the action with multiple levels of irony. His detailed picture of life in the palace, where the sultan's many wives vie for primacy, makes a vivid contrast with the common people's simple piety in Cities of Salt ; he also reveals the roots of the rivalry between two of Khureybit's sons, profligate Khazael and quietly intelligent Fanar, who will later fight for the sultanate. One of the most vividly realized protagonists is the British adventurer Hamilton, a fascinating combination of T. E. Lawrence and what might be a character out of Edward Said's Orientalism . The densely aphoristic prose and folkloric tone are for the third time superbly translated by Theroux. Munif is one of the most important writers to emerge from the Middle East in the last 20 years, and Variations on Night and Day triumphantly concludes his three-volume rumination on the poignancy of inevitable change, the sadness of those overwhelmed by the tides of history and the effect of those tides on the men and women who are carried by them.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Kirkus Reviews

The final installment of Munif's Cities of Salt trilogy, first published in 1989, offers still another view of the same historical subject: the corruption of traditional Arab values when Western allegiances substitute power and money for family and tribal loyalties. Munif's hero this time is Sultan Khureybit of Mooran, whose 1930's friendship with the British surveyor Hamilton makes him the natural instrument of London's notion that a single strong sheikh in the area will be easier to deal with than the usual endless wrangle. Accordingly, Khureybit looks beyond the normal means of consolidating his power--alliances with other chieftains and wholesale marriages with their daughters--and begins to attack his neighbors with quiet backing from abroad. With the flight of Ibn Madi, sultan of Awali, Khureybit's dominion seems secure. But his alliances force him closer to friends worse than his enemies--from the ferocious chieftain Ibn Mayyah, who refuses to take prisoners during the siege of Awali, to his latest wife Najma, whose entrance into his harem sets off a firestorm of backbiting and violence. Tale's end finds Khureybit still riding high--backed by the British crown and seconded by Hamilton, now called Abdelsamad on his conversion to Islam--but he's become a paper tiger, an absurd figure whose power struggles with his old allies even within his family--fights he can't possibly lose, though they strip him of everything he once loved--grow increasingly farcical. Munif is no Euro-basher, as his sympathetic, incisive portrait of Hamilton, the most compelling of his characters, shows. All the more impressive, then, is his satirical review of a calamitous series of cultural exchanges that leaves his Arab potentate bloated with borrowed power and utterly without grace or dignity. -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (November 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679755519
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679755517
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #460,774 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Abdelrahman Munif's novels are brilliantly written and, in my opinion, offer the same satisfactions as the novels of Gogol and Dostoyevsky; in this particular novel, the tone is much more lyrical and wistful, and the characters behave with more heroic motives, than in "Cities of Salt" (tragic) or "The Trench" (satirical). This describes the series of struggles for control of the soon-to-be Sultanate of Mooran, both within the [Saudi-modelled] royal house, and among rival clans.

Set in the 1920's, when the fate of the Arabian Peninsula was uncertain, and the role of the British Foreign & Colonial Office was potentially decisive, this novel pays special attention to the relationship between Khureybit and Hamilton. Hamiton, incidentally, is based on Harry St. John Bridger Philby (or Jack Philby, father of Kim Philby; Wikipedia has an excellent write-up on him). The tension between Hamilton's concerns about the growing corruption in the Mooran ruling house, and his loyalty to Khureybit, are sensitively and carefully portrayed.
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Abdelrahman Munif is the preeminent Saudi novelist. He has written a quintet of novels concerning the Kingdom; so far, only the first three have been translated into English. I've read (and reviewed) the first two, Cities of Salt and The Trench. The first novel concerns the impact of the initial oil exploration efforts in the Eastern Province on the agricultural and Bedouin communities there. Using Amazon reviews as an "index," it is the most read of his works (at least in translation). The second novel concerns the `50's in the Kingdom, and the rule (or misrule) of King Saud. "Variations," though written later, is set during an earlier period, the `20's, when Ibn Saud was uniting, through sword and marriage, the vast areas of the peninsula (Al Jazeera) into a country that would bear his name. All of Munif's novels are officially banned in the Kingdom, and therefore, of course, are widely available in Saudis' homes, even if unread. Of the three novels, I found this one the most fascinating, as well as enlightening.

Forget the misinformation posted from the "Publisher's Weekly" review. The character "Hamilton" is NOT "a fascinating combination of T. E. Lawrence and what might be a character out of Edward Said's Orientalism." "Hamilton" is Harry St. John (Abdullah) Philby, a former British Foreign Service Officer, adventurer, linguist and explorer who "went native" as the expression might have it. He became Ibn Saud's most trusted foreign adviser (as always in such case, for certain issues, the adjective "foreign" can be dropped).
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this much hyped book is totally uninteresting. the way it is written makes it a totally unenjoyable and impossible to get involved in. the greatest coherent textual unit is the paragraph. it's not even a book, only a bookful of sentences and paragraphs. while at that level occasionally interesting, the lack of an overarching drive makes the reader think twice if they want to turn the page, or just stop reading.

there are no characters or personalities. every person talks, behaves and acts in the same way. it is also poorly composed. the point of view of the reader is not clear. in one sentence, the reader is thrown right in the middle of events, in the next, they look at the events from an outsider's point of view, and two lines below they are looking back at the events from the point of view of a historian, decades after the events took place.

you could read the book back to front, or read only every other page, or remove the middle 100 pages altogether, and you would have the same reading experience. pompously worded, totally redundant parts alternate with themes that are picked up and then suddenly abandoned for good without any further development or even mentioning. it is not even a book, to be honest, it only looks like a book, but it is only a long-winded tenuously protracted stream of ... egoism?

i think this book is just one never-ending ego-trip of the author's. it was a waste of money to buy it, and a pain to finish it. save yourself a disappointment, and spend your money on mars bars instead - you will still be better off than with this book. while it didn't frustrate or annoy me, and therefore deserves more than one star, i found it totally unenjoyable and just simply DEAD BORING
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Mr. Maclean's excellent review gives you the historical perspective and Amazon's description gives you the story details of Munif's final book in his Cities of Salt trilogy.

While I didn't enjoy this quite as much as the first two, it was still an enthralling read - if for no other reason than Munif's ability to write and Theroux's ability to translate.

The trilogy provides an in depth story of a way of life that we can hardly fathom. The time span covered is not that long ago, but impossible to recapture except for dry textbooks or (much better) books by someone like Munif. I'm not sure there is another Munif, and if there is I'm don't know how a better job could be done.

Read this for enjoyment. But make sure your mind is fully engaged so you can achieve some understanding of a place and time which is the basis for so much of our current world.
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