Sunday, June 29, 2014

Review: 'Paris Syndrome' by Tahir Shah

A trip down memory lane takes me to my first time in Paris. I had read the literature, watched the movies, felt that I knew the city inside and out. I was in love with Paris before setting foot in it. It was going to be the trip where everything, EVERTYHING, was going to be not only beautiful and perfect but above all romantic; Single at the time (Mr. Fabulous and I had not met yet), I hoped a Hugo, with a silent H, was waiting to realise that it was me he’d been waiting for all his life. Needless to say of course, reality dealt my imagination the blow everyone could see coming, except myself. Safe to say that I soon snapped out of it and have very fond memories each time I go back for a visit. Lucky for Mr. Fabulous, I never met an Hugo, with a silent H.

Other tourists, particularly the Japanese, are not as lucky. When these tourists’ expectations of Paris fail to add up to the one in their imaginations some of them have suffered such sadness, such acute feelings of persecution and shock that they have had to be transported back home under medication. Psychologists have coined this little known, but quite real affliction, ‘The Paris Syndrome’. Tahir Shah, one of my favorite authors, has just written a novel based on this most fascinating and bizarre malady of the mind.

‘Paris Syndrome’, the novel, sees its Japanese heroine, ten-year-old Miki Suzuki from Sendai listening to her grandfather’s describe a place where ‘all the women were beautiful and dressed in the finest gowns,’ and ‘all the men were handsome, like movie stars’. The city where ‘the sun never stopped shining and the warm air was filled with butterflies and birdsong.’ The city, of course, was Paris.

Miki’s grandfather had been to Paris on a short visit in the decade after the War and on the last day of his trip, had glimpsed a coin pouch in Louis Vuitton’s shop window. It was ‘the most exquisite thing’ he had ever seen. But the shop was closed and he had had to leave home the next day without buying it. And ‘almost every day which has passed since then’ he has thought of his lost chance.

Twenty years pass and Miki is now selling discounted beauty products door-to-door for the dubious Angel Flower Beauty Company. She has never forgotten her grandfather’s story and his dream has become hers and intensified in such a way that the French capital becomes to her not only a symbol of all that was good and right but also the place where she knew she was destined to find true love and happiness.

Things are not easy for Miki. At home her apartment is freezing and she can barely afford a heater. Things are not much nicer at work. She is assigned an officious angry boss named Kiato Yamato aka Pun Pun who seems to dislike her although she ‘was kind in a deep down way, a quality that endeared her to almost everyone she met’.

However, destiny steps in (probably egged on by Miki’s prayers to her ancestors) and her life changes forever. Her company, run by a man feared more than Pun Pun, announces a competition whereby the sales person who manages to sell the most products will be sent on an all-expenses paid trip to the city of Paris. As expected, Miki wins the competition accidentally becoming a celebrity in the process. Accompanied by two of the company’s female customers, her boss Pun Pun, his mistress Noemi and the Chairman of the company Miki is on her way with two promises; to buy the pouch at LV for her grandfather and the other one she’d promised to the sales clerk at the Kinokuniya bookshop: to visit the Nissim de Camondo Museum.

Once Miki sets foot in the French capital, ‘Paris Syndrome’, the affliction, rears its head as an ugly snake ready to deal Miki the mother of all bites.

‘The Paris Syndrome’ is on the face of it a very straight forward, entertaining tale of the adventures of a young, single woman out to make right on a vow to her grandfather. However, it is also a tale with a dark sinister undertone. The media plays a big part in the unfolding of events in this story and the reader is left with an uncomfortable nauseating sensation that there are powers that be who control what stories the masses should care about, and that truth is not high up on the list of priorities when in the pursuit of a really good story. Looking at the phenomena of sensationalism in today’s media, it is a message that transcends the pages of the book and resonates quite loudly with the reader. The message is clear: media highlights heroes but it can also destroy lives and shatter dreams in the blink of an eye.

Miki’s encounter with the complete opposite of everything she believed about Paris drives her mad and many readers will connect with her pain and suffering. When Miki is in the presence of Dr. Mesmer (whose patients were almost all suffering from some variety or other of Paris Syndrome), one gets the impression that the problem might have surpassed that of ‘The Paris Syndrome’ and moved on to deeper, darker psychological terrain. It is a fascinating process to see the ebb and flow of these emotions and the understanding that the author has of the limits to which the mind can be stretched and tested.

‘The Paris Syndrome’ is a very interesting book indeed. Tahir Shah is at his best doing what he does best: spinning a tale of fantastical proportions. There is misery and gaiety, ugliness and charm, kindness and ignorance, fear and courage and a very big blast. I loved it!

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