One night Frieda finds a man, Tayeb, sleeping in the stairwell outside her door, and gives him a blanket and pillow. The next morning he is gone, leaving a painting of a bird on the wall and the words:
As the great poet says, you’re afflicted,
Like me, with a bird’s journey.
The great poet is the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008), and his poem ‘Here the birds’ journey ends’ forms one part of the epigraph to A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar; the other is from Ecclesiastes (10:20):
A bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.
This is my starting point for writing about A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar: it has been excellently reviewed at Cornflower Books, if you want to read more about it.
Birds are a central motif to the novel, both an actual and a metaphorical presence. Their flight is mimicked by Frieda’s incessant journeys for her work (researching the concerns of ‘the youth of the Islamic world’ and devising solutions for them which Western governments can act upon), the aeroplanes which leave smoky paths above her flat, Tayeb’s wanderings across southern England and, in a story from 1923 told in parallel, the ill-fated Christian mission to proselytise Kashgar. Eva, the reluctant missionary whose notes for a proposed travel book narrate this parallel story, compares riding her bicycle to flying. At a more metaphorical level, most of the characters are in flight from themselves, seeking something. Yet this is perhaps not (simply) what Darwish and Tayeb mean when they write of a bird’s journey.
Those who are afflicted with birds’ journeys are pioneers. They want to change the world. They may be missionaries, like Millicent Frost, who are eager to convert the Muslims of Turkestan and, in a different manner, Frieda, whose ultimate aim is greater intercultural understanding but whose work is perhaps used in a more subtle form of ideological colonialism. But they may be artists, writers, photographers or film-makers, like Eva, Lizzie and Tayeb, people who leave a trail of beauty or truth behind them. Joinson draws a distinction between these groups, again using bird imagery: Lizzie and Eva reminisce about their sojourn in a convent school in Geneva where, to counteract the religious fervour of the Catholic girls around them, they spoke to each other in bird language.
And the novel is hopping with real birds. They are fragile bodies, caged or roasted in Kashgar, bred to be shot in the Yemen. In fact, they are rarely free. The cruelty against the bodies of birds, explicitly described, hints at the violence suffered off-stage by human bodies, the victims of government repression, of banditry and revolution. This link between vulnerable human and avian bodies is reinforced when Tayeb paints a feather on Frieda’s naked back, but the central bird (ho ho) of them all is Irene Guy.
I may as well begin with the bones.
They were scalded, sun-bleached, like tiny flutes, and I called out to the carter to stop. It was early evening; anxious to reach our destination we had travelled, in the English fashion, through the hottest part of the day. They were bird bones, piled in front of a tamarisk tree and I suppose my fate could be read from the pattern they made in the dust, if I only knew how to see it.
This was when I heard the cry.
This is Irene’s birth, and her delicate little bones are likened to the bird’s skeleton. Later, her caged owl is part of her legacy to Frieda – along with a written record, Eva’s notes. Irene has no ‘voice’ in the novel, and her life, full of hope and plans, is ultimately almost as constricted as the owl’s. The birds in the book may represent dreams as well as bodies.
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is a novel which was widely reviewed by bloggers when it was first published last year, and for that I am very grateful: were it not for your recommendations of it I should never have picked it out of the kringwinkel (recycling shop) as the paperback edition has a truly hideous abd offputting cover. (And publishers! Please persuade your illustrators to read the books whose covers they design!) It is an evocative novel which touches on literature and silence, rootlessness, power dynamics between lovers and sexes, relations between mothers and daughters. Joinson’s patterning and use of echoes, in terms of both plot and image, between the two narratives strengthens her message that we are doomed to repeat the past if we do not know or understand it.
You can read more about the Trio, three women missionaries part of whose adventures the 1924 story is loosely based upon, here. It’s fascinating to see how Joinson adapted elements of their and Topsy’s biography. And finally, here is the beautiful poem ‘Here the birds’ journey ends’:
Here the birds’ journey ends
Here the birds’ journey ends, our journey, the journey of words,
and after us there will be a horizon for the new birds.
We are the ones who forge the sky’s copper, the sky that will carve roads
after us and make amends with our names above the distant cloud slopes.
Soon we will descend the widow’s descent in the memory fields
and raise our tent to the final winds: blow, for the poem to live, and blow
on the poem’s road. After us, the plants will grow and grow
over roads only we have walked and our obstinate steps inaugurated.
And we will etch on the final rocks, ‘Long live life, long live life,’
and fall into ourselves. And after us there’ll be a horizon for the new birds.
(Translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah; published in the New Yorker, 25th August 2008)