Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 6, 2017

Seven Signs of the Lion, by Michael M Naydan

Nicholas’s tour of the museum took him from the ninth century or so nearly to his present. It was filled with history, with the labours of people from his patria’s past, with weapons of all kinds used to defend the land. While he looked closely at the various displays, each object had a story to tell. He was left with the feeling that something or some things there in that museum of antiquities would be invaluable to his quest. He just needed to keep himself open to the messages the objects might provide for him in the telegraphic language of musty time.  (p. 208)

That is exactly how I felt throughout this puzzling book.  As with most of the rest of the 330-odd pages, I waded through eight pages of description about the objects in this museum with a feeling that something would reveal the author’s purpose as long as I stayed open to the possibility.  But I remained mystified.   Because of the reference to lions in the title my antenna went on alert when Nicholas saw a lion on a flag… I paid special attention when Nicholas felt pressure in his chest when he moved away from a particular portrait… I wondered if there was a Da Vinci Code element to it all when he got to the church relics.  Were there clues I was missing??

Seven Signs of the Lion might be described as a journey of self-discovery.  A dissatisfied academic at a minor university travels from the US to the city of Lviv to unravel his conflicted feelings about his identity and Ukrainian heritage.  He is an observer wanting to belong, and he is predisposed to like everything he sees.  What amounts to a travelogue is framed around a pseudo-mystical dream where he is told to go to the city of lions where all the answers will be if he makes the journey.

Snippets, just patches of words quilted together.  Nicholas wished he could have remembered more.  In those moments right after lucid awakening, everything is clear.  Just a short time later the dream memory like a stained glass window broken by a thrown brick and fallen to the ground was now shattered in shards and losing its narrative.  You could see parts of it in individual pieces, but its wholeness was gone.  Perhaps the wholeness of it would have made more sense to him.  But then again, it was now a mystery.  Mysteries leave a trail to follow to solve and a pressing need to solve and resolve them.  And Nicholas needed to find the glue to reconstruct the shattered stained glass narrative for himself. (p. 13)

BTW I reckon this passage would make a great exercise for wannabe editors to practise on.  That second last sentence… *shakes head in dismay*.  But the passage does show how brilliant that cover art is.  Alas, I couldn’t find acknowledgement of the artist.

Anyway…

Where you and I just pack our bags and go check out the ancestral homeland, this Nicholas has a quest.  If I interpret it correctly, he believes that if he finds seven signs of the lion, order will be restored out of chaos, restless spirits will relax and gosh! he will be the one to sort it all out.  He is The One!  Wow, there could even be a geo-political dimension to this because Lviv is in Western Ukraine and, as we all know, there’s a civil war on the eastern border with Russia.  (#Spoiler: As it turns out there is plenty of anti Russian sentiment, but that’s as far as it goes).

Now, I am an experienced reader, and I know that there are writing styles in other cultures that require a reader’s flexibility and imagination.  Middle Eastern writing seems florid, Chinese writing involves lots of reading between the self-censored lines. European writing can have allusions to unfamiliar myths, religions, history and popular culture.  Contemporary authors can add to the complexity by playing with form, structure, style and language and by borrowings from other cultures as well.  That’s common with bi-cultural writers who are living in the US and UK.  (It’s exactly what the Irish writer James Joyce was doing when he wrote his masterworks in France).  Muddling through such creativity is part of the reading adventure, and it’s the reader’s job to adapt and make sense of it rather than criticise the book for not being similar to what is familiar.

But…

What if the reader – who is indeed conscious of all of the above – has a suspicion that the writing is not very well done? That it’s a brave attempt at conjuring what the blurb calls part magic realism, part travelogue, part adventure novel and part love story but it just doesn’t work as a novel or even a hybrid?  I can only give my honest response here.  For me, the book doesn’t ‘work’ in any of these separate components, and it doesn’t work as a whole either.

I can’t comment on the magic realism without giving away the ending, except to say that it reminded me of student essays which traverse all kinds of plot diversions only to find themselves trapped in their own maelstrom, from which the only escape is: magic.  That is not what magic realism is about.  It’s not a device to rescue an author from failures of planning and imagination.

There’s not much to say about the adventure either.  An adventure/quest novel needs a narrative drive and this one doesn’t have it.

As for the love story… Revealingly, Nicholas likes the ‘freedom’ to enjoy the old-fashioned sexism of male-female relations in Lviv because he finds it stressful to have to watch himself with American women.  He does a great deal of observing and classifying potential women, their bodies and their clothes, and he describes their coy flirtations.  It is tedious in the extreme.  He narrows his would-be conquests down to Raya and Ada neither of whom have any personality because the characterisation is so weak.  They merely act as tourist escorts for the travelogue.

The travelogue is boring.  Lviv may well be a gorgeous place and (so Wikipedia tells me) the cultural centre of Ukraine, but this book does not make me want to go there.  Much of the travelogue is like a badly-written student essay, all description and no apparent coherent purpose, except to tell.  The museum chapter is typical.  He describes moving from room to room in chronological order as the guides direct him to do.  He describes the things in it.  He doesn’t comment that contemporary museums elsewhere are experimenting with new ways of presenting their materials, themes, interactive displays and so on, so this is an old-fashioned museum.  This might be why it’s so cheap to visit and why he’s the only visitor for most of his time there.  Although he’s a bit uneasy about a portrait removed from a coffin where it belonged, there’s nothing about the hot issue in museums today: giving back – and getting back – stuff that’s been appropriated from other countries, surely an issue given Lviv’s history as a city so often under conquest.   I’d like to know why a tailors’ guild in a country miles away from Africa might have appropriated the image of a lion on its flag. But no, Nicholas the narrator spends half a paragraph on the pattern of a parquetry floor. He does that elsewhere too, in a church, briefly luring me into thinking that floor patterns would reveal some element of the quest, but no, they’re just floor patterns, like you see in buildings all over Europe.

Nicholas the narrator lectures his readers too, as if they were his hapless students.  He uses Ukrainian words (Romanised from their Cyrillic alphabet) and then – unlike other authors who use these words in context so that readers can deduce what they mean – explains what they mean in English. He literally tells us which syllables to accent in the words.  He explains cultural aspects of Lviv, in a heavy-handed way, ad nauseam.   It’s as if he feels his readers are too dim to work things out for themselves and must be told so that they don’t get it wrong.

As far as I can tell mine is the first online review of this book and it’s disappointing that I can’t find much to recommend it.  It is an homage to a city that the author clearly loves.  He obviously feels proud of this heritage and wants to share its treasures with an audience, perhaps with some urgency because of current geo-political tensions.  But while Michael M Naydan is a respected translator of Ukrainian and Russian literature, this novel is a major disappointment.

City of Lions As it happens, I have a copy of City of Lions by Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Pushkin Press, 2016).  The book consists of two essays about the same city, Lviv.  I think I might move it well up the TBR, so Seven Signs of the Lion has  at least achieved its goal of piquing my interest in the city…

Author: Michael M. Naydan
Title: Seven Signs of the Lion, a novel
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, London, 2016
ISBN: 9781911414179
Source: review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications

Available from Fishpond: Seven Signs of the Lion or direct from Glagoslav

 


Responses

  1. It all sounds too Da Vinci Code for me, and magic realism as well!
    Seeing as I’m on my own down here (temporarily anyway) that re museums, one of my favourite things in Greece was a rusty old crane on the Acropolis which apparently will stay in place indefinitely pending the return of the stolen ‘Elgin’ marbles.

    • Well, if that’s a symbol of how well they’d look after them, perhaps they should stay in the British Museum.

  2. I thinkI’ll definitely be avoiding this. I can’t recommend City of Lions highy enough, though.

  3. Thanks for the warning. I’ve learnt I’d better stay away from books with magic realism. They’re not my cup of tea.

    • I’d like to read one that’s good, that’s well done…


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