Secularised Life of Saints

A book about God and the world: that, no more and no less, is what the well-known Islam expert, Navid Kermani, offers us in "Forty Lives", a collection of short stories which originally appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau. By Anne-Bitt Gerecke

photo: Pariser Hoftheater
Navid Kermani

​​They are not only about the cardinal concepts of Western culture and religion, eternal values such as love and reason, faith and duty, beauty and happiness, truth and fiction, they are just as much about Oriental wisdom and Persian mysticism – and many more things in heaven and earth besides.

Kermani's pieces bring together East and West just as naturally as they do comedy and despair, the material and the spiritual.

The author, who was born in Iran and grew up in Germany, sets up correspondences between everyday happenings, commonplace settings and ordinary people on the one hand, and concepts of spirituality such as humility, goodness, consolation and revelation on the other.

Literary miniatures of great poetic charm

Kermani puts these words, and others like them, under the microscope, seeking out their meaning, which is more than ever hidden today. He devotes one text to exemplifying each, all with titles in the same form: 'On Hope', 'On Freedom' etc. Contrary to expectation, however, these are not followed by philosophical disquisitions, but by literary miniatures of great poetic charm.

In them Kermani explores the tonal range of these "cardinal" words through little, often grotesque stories from everyday life.

We feel his protagonists are people we know from our multicultural everyday world: the woman who lives in the flat across the way, LadyLilith, a chat-room acquaintance, a young woman from Isfahan and Professor Ioannis Rigas, "who, as is well known, teaches philosophy in Berlin but who, like all good men and true, is unwilling to leave Cologne, his home town, and so must endure the ever-worsening lot of the railway commuter."

Writing about things spiritual and profane

Kermani's characters live in ordinary places such as the old Cologne district of Nippes or its yuppie 'Belgian Quarter', they trot along on match days to the Müngersdorf Stadium as loyal fans of FC Cologne, a team constantly flirting with relegation, or, as students of Sufi literature, take a job selling newspapers and soft drinks in a Hamburg kiosk.

And it is in just such mundane surroundings – in the electrical store, at the pub on the corner, around the dinner table at home – that Kermani's stories grant us a sudden, brief epiphany.

Kermani has the ability to let true "beauty" shine through, to reveal great "wisdom", or demonstrate the art of "contemplation" in the most unlikely and trivial of events.

All this is done with almost casual humour, for example in the story "On Curiosity" which describes how a certain Heiko Taylor "can spend hours, no, days, whole weeks booking a flight for some acquaintance or other," which eventually leads to him writing, for an old school-friend, an encyclopaedic treatise on the mysteries of flight booking under the motto, "Human beings are human beings because they are different from all other human beings" – long after all their journeys have been booked and completed, of course.

Secularised lives of saints

Eccentric enthusiasts and searching sceptics, hesitant idealists and self-confident sporty types, all are united in their longing for faith, hope, love. And in these stories it always seems to be a matter of life and death, though told in a completely undramatic form and as succinctly as possible.

Thus each of these fragments from a life represents, in the compass of only a few pages, one of the Forty Lives, as if seen under a magnifying glass, each little story becoming a kind of secularised saint's life as, amidst all the mundane and the profane, it unexpectedly it touches on ultimate questions and allows us a fleeting glimpse of the spiritual.

With Forty Lives Kermani has written a book which is wise and whimsical, sad and funny, lightweight – both light and weighty. Taken together, these separate stories, only loosely connected with each other, combine to produce a picture of a world we all know and yet have never quite seen in that way: enlightenment guaranteed!

Navid Kermani, "Vierzig Leben", Ammann Verlag, Zürich 2004, 207 pages
ISBN 3-250-60068-7

Anne-Bitt Gerecke
Translation from German: Mike Mitchell