Happily, Hisham Matar's reputation rests on his other output
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 2 October 2020
This is an easy read, thanks to its pared back style and because it is just 118 pages long, including quite a lot of pictures (these, in my Kindle, often too small to be appreciated), so I’d completed it within 36 hours of purchase.
Hisham Matar has risen above adversity and deserves our respect. He is a bridge between cultures, all of which he "owns" without renouncing the others, except, perhaps insofar he writes in English rather than Arabic (but illustrating that Arabic, French and English literature form a sort of continuum, many Arab intellectuals, like Matar, are exiles).
So I was a little sad to have come away with the same sort of impression as, back in a time before time, when hosts would set up an 8mm projector to share their holiday shots.
In this case, encounters with the good people of Siena, walks round the cemetery and lots of paintings, which Matar contemplates at length. Oh! and sitting with a nonagenarian friend in her bathroom...
He successfully communicates his enthusiasm, and thereby earns my respect, as his ancestral culture cares little for imagery, but does not go far beyond saying what they show, even detailing their dimensions, a bit Mr Colllins describing Lady Caroline De Bourgh's chimney piece at Rosing Park.
Though personal impressions have their value, this is predicated on the moral/intellectual superiority of the purveyor. In any event, no one could accuse the book of being painstakingly researched. Thus we read: “Siena was unique in that it favoured civic rule. The Republic of Siena was created in 1125 and continued for the four hundred years that oversaw the flowering of the Sienese School.”
Really? But you’d need look no further than neighbouring Florence to find another contemporaneous republic. According to Wikipedia, "by the 11th century, many cities, including Venice, Milan, Florence, Genoa, Pisa, Lucca, Cremona, Siena, Città di Castello, Perugia, and many others, had become large trading metropoles, able to obtain independence from their formal sovereigns", so, no! Siena wasn’t unique at all, but fairly typical.