Ibrahim al-Koni's best work invokes the majesty of the desert. Alas, writes Ursula Lindsey, his latest novel loses touch with that world .
Translated from the original Arabic by William M Hutchins
University of Texas Press
Several years ago, when I was a student of Arabic, I took a literature class at the American University in Cairo. Toward the end of the semester we read Ibrahim al-Koni's Nazeef al Hagar (The Bleeding of the Stone). None of us had heard of al-Koni before, and we were transfixed. That's what the renowned Libyan novelist is, at his best: a revelation. Unfortunately, the latest of his works to be translated into English - The Puppet, published by University of Texas Press - lacks the suspense and marvel of his best work.
Al-Koni was born in 1948 in Ghadames, an ancient oasis in the western desert of Libya.
The author is a Tuareg Berber - a group of nomadic pastoralist tribes who live in the Northern Sahara. He only learned Arabic at age 12. Today he has published over 60 novels, been translated into 25 languages and won numerous literary awards. In the last decade his work has begun to reach English readers; The Puppet is the fifth of his novels to be translated into English.
Although he has spent much of his adult life outside Libya - he studied literature and worked as a journalist in Russia for many years, then settled in Switzerland in 1993 - the landscape of al-Koni's work remains exclusively that of his childhood. "I took my Great Desert with me on this long journey of mine because it is the subject of my contemplation. It is what inspires me," al-Koni once told an interviewer. For the author, the Tuareg way of life - humanity's confrontation with the desert - is an inexhaustible metaphor for the spiritual striving for freedom, balance and meaning. "The desert is the world's soul," al-Koni has also said.
This may all sound a bit nebulous. But in al-Koni's writing, the struggle between men, beasts and the elements is specific and vital, exciting and lyrical. Often, humans and animals go through excruciating physical trials together, and emerge enlightened and redeemed.
The world of al-Koni's books is a land of signs to be noticed, deciphered and heeded. Dreams and portents are important, and more important still is men's faith in them. Towards the end of The Puppet, a character who has been abandoned in the desert reads a good omen in the night-time skies. The next morning, he sets out confidently: "He did not change course the way careless people would. Instead he chose the same direction he had selected the day before, because setting a new course is an error the desert will not forgive… He allowed himself to become the naked land's pawn, because he knew that the noble wasteland would never renege on a covenant made with a person who surrendered himself as its hostage… In the desert those who think they have been granted enormous knowledge and who therefore debate and resist will perish… The other group, those who surrender control to the wasteland and seek the desert's protection against the desert, survives."
Perhaps one of the reasons The Puppet disappoints is that, for the most part, it doesn't take place in the desert. The novel is the middle instalment of a three-part trilogy al-Koni penned in the late 1990s, charting the decline and moral corruption of a nomadic tribe after its settlement in an oasis and the subsequent shift towards more sedentary and commercial ways. The puppet of the title is the would-be leader Aghulli, who is manipulated and betrayed by the tribe's noblemen and traders.
In his introduction, the translator William M Hutchins (who has translated al-Koni's Anubis and The Seven Veils of Seth, as well as Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy) connects al-Koni's work to the medieval Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldoun's theory of cyclical social expansion and disintegration. The book is also reminiscent of the Saudi writer Abdul-Rahman Munif's masterful Cities of Salt trilogy, which charts - with much greater nuance and historical specificity - the disorienting transformation of a nomadic population into a sedentary work force.
The rot of society, the temptations of settled and "civilised" life - as opposed to the purity of the traditional nomadic existence - is a recurring theme in al-Koni's work. In The Bleeding of the Stone, the shepherd Asouf lives as a hermit in the mountains. The arrival of two modern hunters represents the eruption of human evil into his innocent natural world. In Gold Dust, the hero chooses his camel companion over his family and reputation. The opposition between the corrupting demands of society and nomadic freedom is romantic and sometimes simplistic, but al-Koni imbues his characters' longing for the desert as a spiritual homeland with pathos and urgency.
The Puppet unfortunately retreads this familiar territory without adding anything new. There is no tension about the oasis' future, no ambiguity over the characters' natures and motivations. One of the general charms of al-Koni's work is that his characters are both archetypal and sui generis. Here, they are just archetypes: the puppet, the hero, the merchant, the lover.
In his introduction, Hutchinson writes that he has translated the work in "a clear and simple but formal English rendition, with an occasional modern word added to rouse the reader from any mythical slumber". This sounds like an excellent way of proceeding. But Hutchinson's translation is weighed down by long and sometimes awkward sentences - perhaps a result of following the Arabic original too faithfully. And some of the modern words sprinkled across the text - "game theory," "strategic planning," "belle" - are more jarring than rousing.
Neither is Hutchinson's task facilitated by the book's long stretches of meandering dialogue. The villains in The Puppet are both chatty and enigmatic; the hero is remarkably obtuse. This leads to many conversations like this one, between Aghulli and his nemesis, a powerful merchant: "'The fact is that making money is a single loop in a chain 70 yards long.'
'The charm of commerce doesn't reside in the accumulation of profits but in a secret totally distinct from profit, master.'
'We compete to reach this secret—not from a desire to achieve the security we imagine we earn by gaining control of a larger stash of treasures.'
'Could I learn something about this secret?'
"If the tongue, master, were capable of disclosing this secret, that would make the matter much easier…"
At the book's end, even as Aghulli is being stabbed to death by a group of conspirators, he and the merchant manage to hold one last, lengthy, largely meaningless debate. The vacuity of the conversations in The Puppet stands in stark contrast to the powerful and nuanced non-verbal bonds between humans and animals that are one of the trademarks of al-Koni's novels. There is no relationship in The Puppet that approaches the spiritual connection between the shepherd Asouf and the endangered waddan, a near-extinct mountain sheep, in the The Bleeding of the Stone, or the bond in Gold Dust between the protagonist and his camel. In the book's opening pages, the hero rides his mount across the desert, talking to and teasing him. "Leaning forward, spitting, and chewing at his bridle in his joyous rush, the thoroughbred would respond: 'Aw-a-a-a-a-a-a.' And Ukhayyad would laugh and slap him." These few lines conjure the allure of the desert - the freedom and the kinship with the natural world it offers - and the loss that leaving it might entail better than all The Puppet's disquisitions.
Ursula Lindsey, a regular contributor to The Review, lives in Cairo.