Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Desert Stories for Today

Al-Koni, Ibrahim. The Puppet: a Novel. Trans. William M. Hutchins. Austin, TX: Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 2010.

At 113 pages, The Puppet should be listed as “a book you can read in a day,” but it’s not. The book is the second book in The Saharan Oasis trilogy by Libyan writer Ibrahim Al-Koni. The New Waw, the first of the series, has garnered the American Literary Translation Association’s 2015 National Translation Award for translator William H. Hutchins, and Al-Koni has been longlisted as one of only 9 for the 2015 Man Book Prize. The Puppet is the second, and The Scarecrow ends the series; however, the books do not need to be read in order to make sense.

Al-Koni writes in a stream of consciousness style that is influenced by his Tuareg heritage, his university years studying comparative literature in Russia, journalist years in Poland, and finally his settling down in Switzerland. The Puppet is a unique blend of ancient story that draws on motifs that are quite applicable to modern times. Al-Koni explores the values of nomadic life against the dangers of complacency once a people decides to settle for life in an oasis. A world of duality and irony ensues, where both sages and vassels are willing to sacrifice personal freedom and wisdom for gold and commerce that ultimately enslaves them. Intertwined with their political maneuverings, a love story between a vassal and a beautiful maiden tells a story older than time, between men and women, between the desert and its people, revealing the chthonic duality of passion and annihilation, life and death.

When the people demanded a leader, I was reminded of the warning Samuel, the last judge of Israel, the last mouthpiece direct from God, gives to the Israelites when they demand a king. Life will change. You don’t know what price you will truly pay in asking for a human ruler. The divine will have its day.

I was reminded of The Sibyl by Swedish writer Par Lagerkvist who had a lifelong interest in gods and the relationship of the human to the divine. I was also reminded of Hesse who explored the duality of human nature, how as man moves further away from nature, he moves further away from himself.

Al-Koni eloquently captures the ease of surrender to nature, “You must relax and give your body totally to the water if you want to stay afloat. In the desert, too, arrogant people who act obstinately succumb. In the dessert those who think they have been granted enormous knowledge and who therefore debate and resist will perish. The desert takes vengeance on this group with its labyrinth. The other group, those who surrender control to the wasteland and seek the desert’s protection against the desert, survives.”

Al-Koni’s storytelling is particular to his time and tradition, but applies to any traveler, any people. Should we fight? Should we succumb? Should we live ethically? These questions are not answered. Only what must be considered. No, the book is not a short read at all. It demands another.

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