Review: A Designated Man

By Madeleine Kingsley, April 23, 2009
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Moris Farhi: sensual

Moris Farhi: sensual

By Moris Farhi
Telegram, £12.99

Moris Farhi’s new literary fable takes Tolstoyan themes of war and peace, and adds Aesop’s charm and echoes of Ben Okri. A Designated Man is nonetheless as original a read as it is transporting.

The tale unfolds on Skender, an imaginary Mediterranean island of glorious geography but grim social order. Inter-family feuds and honour killings have long been the way of life, not only permitted but actually enshrined in law. To die in bed on Skender is to heap shame upon one’s kin.

Where there is no man of the family left to shed enemy blood, a wife or mother must assume the murderous duty, ritually burning her feminine attire, cropping her hair, even faking facial hair. She thus becomes the eponymous “designated man” on Farhi’s island, which is indeed the devil’s work: local myth has it that Skender was breathed into being by Satan, who dodged God’s punishment by spitting evil far out to sea.

In gratitude for his escape, Satan transformed the spittle into a far-flung place of slaughter and brutality.

It is, ironically, a haven that Farhi’s hero, Osip seeks on sailing back to Skender. Returning from the mainland wars, he is unrecognised, weary and traumatised by the loss of a rare young love. Osip plans to restore his family’s disused watermill, but, something of a Prospero figure, is driven to save Skender from its deathly code.

He is, in his sense of mission, another kind of designated man. Alongside Osip in challenging the island’s laws (plus its implacable elders) are new-forged friends: Dev, a dwarf of redoubtable courage, and his improbable lover Kokona, a weaver of tapestries who “imparted colour wherever she went as if she were a rainbow”.

The characters of fable are often one-dimensional archetypes, but not here. These are living, thinking, sensual people who stop to smell the almond-blossom, wash clothes at the collective lavanderi and weep for certain memories they shrink to share. Each, as well as Osip’s third ally, Bostan, takes up the tale in turn, a counterpoint of voices calling for peace and unendangered time to love.

Farhi, a Turkish-born Jew now living in London, writes of what he has long wished for humankind: that we should settle disputes without violence and “rejoice in the plurality of people as we rejoice in the infinite multiplicity of nature”. Osip personifies Farhi’s philosophy in a novel that, for all its spiritual finesse, reads like a great adventure in which happiness may dim, but wistful hope prevails.

Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance reviewer

    Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011