The Short Version: The story of David Mountolive, British diplomat – tracing from his younger days, when he first met Nessim and Narouz Hosnani, through the story recounted previously in Justine and Balthazar. The story is, however, first and foremost political this time ’round – the hints of political turmoil that only occasionally surfaced in those first two books come to the fore in this novel. Characters like Darley, Balthazar, even Clea and Justine, are relegated to secondary while the stories of Pursewarden, Mountolive, and Nessim take the fore.
The Review: Where Balthazar recontextualized Justine – making us understand things differently, realizing that Darley was an unreliable narrator that first go-round – so too does Mountolive recontextualize everything that has come before. The pangs of disprized love are unimportant now – the vagaries of oversexed Brits and Copts matter very little in the scheme of the political game being played above and around them. As a result, Durrell spends little time on the actual vagaries of love. Sure, we find out that Melissa and Pursewarden spent a night together – and that, obliquely, is why Pursewarden ends up giving Darley that unexpected 500 quid windfall after his death. We get a bit of insight into the Hosnani family – namely that Mountolive had an affair with Leila, Nessim and Narouz’s mom. There’s also some further insight into why Justine married Nessim – insight not colored by the nervous workings of Darley’s battered heart.
But mostly, this is a book about politics in Egypt in the days before World War II. There’s mention of “the new Attila” and hopes that he would fight Russia and thus the two ‘major threats’ would destroy themselves instead of pulling the rest of the world into war. Most importantly, though – and, I’ll admit, somewhat surprisingly (because I don’t really think in these terms) – the political issue is that of Palestine. Nessim is gun-running (and providing other support, it seems) to help solidify Palestine as a Jewish state in the Middle East. This is an area of geo-politics that I’m less-than-knowledgeable about, so I was scrambling to recall my freshman year political science classes (taught by one of the country’s experts on Middle Eastern politics) while I was reading. The tone of the book also, at times, drags a bit as a result of the somewhat drier topic. Politics can be sexy, but it will never be sexier than actual sex .
Still, I found this book a more concentrated and complete work than Balthazar. It stands quite on its own in terms of literary achievement and merit. I’m not sure that you could truly read it as a stand-alone novel, although I certainly think that you could – there isn’t much left unexplained that would detract from your reading experience. Some of the fun of the novel, though, comes from those encounters with the people we thought we’d known. Darley, for example, is no longer the relatively smooth and gentle everyman I thought he was – he’s a bit nebbish, agitated, and one wonders how indeed he managed to successfully juggle two love affairs with incredible women like Melissa and Justine. The revelations about Pursewarden are the most incredible – just to spend so much more time with him and to see now the rationalization behind his suicide, behind the choices he made…
…and that’s perhaps the most striking achievement of this quartet: the ability to fully flesh out characters in four dimensions and make it seem effortless. I can’t even entirely describe the work Durrell has pulled off except to say that I’ve never encountered anything like it before in any ‘series’ – although this cannot, truly, be called a series. These first three books exist as coevals – they all occur at the same time (essentially) and so we have the rare (if not unique) leisure of seeing an event from one perspective, then another, and then another. Some things do not overlap – Narouz’s death does not factor into the first two novels and the goings-on about town are barely mentioned in Mountolive – but these characters, as they pinball around each other, gain a fresh dimension each time they ricochet into a different version of the story. We might first see a collision between two characters – but then be given the backwards trajectory that shows how one character reached that moment of collision, their motives, their thoughts in the moment, their history as it pertains to that collision and all other collisions they have and will make. It is a feat of multi-dimensional psychology as well as multi-dimensional plotting.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. It does not pack the same punch that Justine did – that feeling of being so wrapped up in Durrell’s voice. Perhaps that’s the third person narration, perhaps it is the political and thus more factual tone. I’m not sure. But the fact that Durrell was able to spin our view of this story that (two novels in) we think we’re coming to understand and reveal to us that we had only seen one tiny, albeit significant facet of the larger game… it is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. Just sheer imaginative excellence.