I just finished reading the fifth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Azareen Can Der Vlier Ollomi’s “Call Me Zebra“, which is running against Michael Ondaatje’s “Warlight” in the first round of the competition.
So Oloomi had a great premise — to write a modern take on Don Quixote with a young woman, an Iranian refugee, at its centre. That’s where the great parts of this novel end. Zebra, the main character, has none of the charm or pathos of Don Quixote. She’s insufferable – selfish, childish, bigoted, narcissistic, clinically cerebral, depressed and depressing. She also doesn’t change until the very, very end, much like Don Quixote, and her adventures are similarly repetitive, but without the humour and warmth of the original Cervantes. But what is worse is that Oloomi has piled so much literature on the narrative that it’s unreadable. It’s like reading a laundry list of quotes and literary factoids which you are expected to plow through to get to a glimmer of plot or dialogue.
It was so bewildering to me that “Call Me Zebra” got good reviews that I went and read them. It’s pretty clear that the reviewers didn’t read the book through – they just skimmed the first bits (the most interesting parts in the novel), and then just wrote the reviews based on that and the excerpt that they got.
I’m reading this as part of the Tournament of Books 2019, and the book has managed to make it to the first round (against the almost equally terrible “Warlight”), while excellent books like “America is Not the Heart”, “Speak No Evil” and “A Terrible Country” are languishing in the play-in round. In the end I couldn’t care less if “Call Me Zebra” or “Warlight” win this round (“Call Me Zebra” is marginally better because of the first part of the novel, the description of the family’s exile from Iran), but I do wish I knew how they got selected to participate in the first place.
Oh well, the next book up won the Man Booker prize in 2018, so I am expecting a better reading experience.