22.08.2019

City of Jasmine is not the book Olga Grjasnowa set out to write. For when she started her novel about a restaurant, she met the man who was to become her husband. He is Syrian, and they had to communicate through google translate. Inevitably Grjasnowa started researching to understand the Syrian story, and just as inevitably a novel followed.

But before it could be published, there was some severe editing. Grjasnowa cut back from 5 main characters to 3. Her German editors then jettisoned another. The British publishers changed the title from “God is not shy” to “City of Jasmine”. Having read the novel, I can’t say I’m a fan of eitherq title, but at least City of Jasmine attracted me. Under false pretences, admittedly, with its promise of exotic, sweet, rich scents.

Although there are plenty of other smells : violence, personal and political betrayal, pungent and sour.

The novel begins at a moment of hope for both surviving main characters. Hammoudi has passed his surgical examinations and has secured a prestigious position in Paris. All he needs to do is return to Syria to renew his passport and everything will be set. Capriciously and with no explanation, his exit visa is denied and Hammoudi, who has no political agenda, is trapped.

Anal is an aspiring young actress, whose wealthy father ensures she wants for nothing. All she needs to do is keep her nose clean. But intoxicated by the prospect of political change, she takes part in peaceful demonstrations against the Syrian regime. Grjasnowa explained it as a moment of hope, the moment when change really seemed to be possible. Anal’s actions are enough – her card is marked and the regime begins its intimidation. Her freedom is preserved only by her wealthy father bribing the appropriate officials.

Grjasnowa charts the downward spiral of both main characters and a handful of subsidiaries as their life courses veer drastically from those they had mapped for themselves. Hammoudi’s disgust at the regime’s killing doctors who tend to the wounds of freedom fighters leads to his becoming an underground surgeon in a city with no medical supplies. Anal’s disgust at her father’s personal secret leads her to reject him. Her involvement with Youssef, a director, already marked as an enemy of the state does not improve her situation.

Eventually, life in the war-torn sniper-filled Deir es-Zor becomes too dangerous for both and they must flee, undertaking dangerous journeys to Europe. Grjasnowa explained the novel isn’t really about Syria, it’s about the promise Europe holds for those who become refugees through necessity, not choice. What kind of promise would that be?

Grjasnowa lets the story speak for itself, refusing to spoil it with polemic. Criticism of the Syrian regime and the people traffickers is voiced through her characters but it does not overwhelm the narrative, which, I have to say held me fast. That man continues to do this to his fellow man is horrifying.

Rejecting the notion that it is the role of novels to provide hope, Grjasnowa replied, “That’s more for cookbooks. I live in hope of being able to recreate those dishes.” Her hope of working with Katy Derbyshire has, however, been realised, and she is delighted with the resulting translation. “It’s even better than the German”, she said. “Correct answer”, commented the chair, Daniel Hahn, drily.