Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 22, 2015

The Storyteller of Marrakesh, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya #BookReview

The Storyterller of MarrakeshThis was a serendipitous find at the library.  It’s a thought-provoking book masquerading as entertaining light reading.  It was a Hindu Prize nominee in 2011.

This is the blurb:

Each year the storyteller Hassan gathers listeners to the city square to share their recollections of a young couple who mysteriously disappeared some time ago. As various witnesses describe their encounters with the couple – their tales overlapping and contradicting each other – Hassan hopes to light upon what happened to them, and clear his own brother of any involvement in their disappearance. 

As testimonies circle an elusive truth, the couple take on an air as enigmatic as their fate.  But is this annual storytelling ritual a genuine attempt to discover the truth, or is it intended instead to weave an ambiguous mythology around a crime?

The author brings us multiple voices and multiple perspectives in the storytelling circle in Jemaa in Morocco.  There are stories embedded in stories, each one taking off on a different tangent from its predecessor. There are men and women, strangers and familiars, peasants, fortune-tellers, artists, and craftsmen.  Some are hostile and argumentative while others merely seek to supplement Hassan’s story or to clarify some detail.  While some are hesitant and shy, all contribute to the sense of mystery surrounding the disappearance of the couple, and the reader is invited to judge whether they keep to the rules of storytelling as described by Hassan’s father:

First, always remember that either a story carries love and mystery, or it carries nothing.  Second, outside of the broad themes determined by the story sticks, the trick is to make up everything out of whole cloth. Third, a story must not have a clean resolution.  That way you will keep your audience coming back for more.  Finally – and this is the most important thing – our craft demands discipline and hard work; a fertile imagination is not enough. (P.127)

Quite a few of the storytellers are overtly anti-western, and there are some confronting attitudes in the text.  Walid, for example, thinks that Lucia brought her troubles on herself when she danced to the drums in the square:

Watching her gyrate, it struck me how little these foreigners respect our culture.  They import their mores and flaunt them before us, they exoticise us, to them we are the great unknown, a blank slate on which to impose their fantasies.  And we encourage them, to our lasting shame.

When a woman thinks she can behave like that, what happens?  Men’s minds thicken.  They begin to think primitive thoughts.  They forget the words of the music and feel only the throbbing beats.  Then even that turns into something else: a dull, burning pain.  Their hearts sting, their faces turn black with heat and range.

You can’t blame the men for what happened next.  A woman like that isn’t worthy of respect. (p.182)

Uh huh…

Hassan himself alerts the reader to a mindset utterly repugnant to those of us in the West.  Describing his father,  he tells us:

He was a tall man with close-cropped hair, courteous and reserved, but there was a dark energy about him.  Every spring, with the melting of the snows, he would give in to black moods that would last for days during which we all kept away from him.  It was rumoured that in his youth he had killed a woman who had been unfaithful and that her spirit returned year after year to haunt him.  One only had to be near him to sent the taut quality beneath his reticence, the knife edge of bitterness arising from that old betrayal.  (p.60)

This much admired and respected father regrets her betrayal, not her murder.  And Hassan’s casual acceptance that his father has possibly been involved in a so-called honour killing made me think: I hope these attitudes are the characters’, not the author’s.

There are many philosophical questions to ponder.  Hassan’s brother Mustafa challenges the storyteller’s view of the world.  From his prison cell, Mustafa says that the Maghreb is so small that it makes him laugh.  He admires what he has seen of Westerners for their impeccable behaviour and air of refinement and he rejects Hassan’s plea that he should have more respect for his own heritage.  Mustafa yearns for more: he feels oppressed by the same faces, the same dull and provincial countenances.  He doesn’t agree with Hassan that the Jemaa was a crucible of people and ideas and a microcosm of the world and encapsulated all that was best in it.   Mustafa thinks this is an illusion.  Although I’ve never been to the Jemaa or Morocco, I think I agree with Mustafa that seeing the world in an open-minded way is an antidote to insularity.  But I also agree with Hassan that Mustafa has seen only tokens of another culture and has let himself be swayed by a casual [and offensive] assumption of superiority.

(BTW The author was born in India and was educated in politics and philosophy in Calcutta, and at the University of Pennsylvania.  He’s not Moroccan).

And then there’s the spiritual issues.  Hassan and his friend Nabil discuss the motives of the Westerners in coming to the Jemaa.

Were they seeking oblivion?  There was certainly that element to them of wanting to forget.  But to forget what exactly?

Perhaps the world they came from?  I speculated.  Modernity?  The West? These are things we will never know, I suppose, things to which there are no clear answers.

But Hassan promptly contradicts his own tentative position with a spray at the West:

What else could it be? I persisted. The Westerners are losing confidence in their ability to shape their futures, and they’ve been trickling down here in their tens and dozens looking for solutions to the dead end in which they find themselves.  We see it every day.  Their world carries within itself its lack of soul like a disease.  And they are unable to purge it because it is inherent in the law that governs them.  They’re replaced spiritual values with material dross, and the result is a reign of nothingness.  Theirs is not a world of faith, nor is it a world of scepticism.  It is a world of bad faith, of dogmas sustained in the absence of genuine convictions. (p.165)

Habil is too polite to dismiss this altogether, (and besides, he shares the same faith).  But his opinion is more congenial to my non-religious PoV.  He thinks that the Westerners experienced an epiphany that enabled them

…to come to terms with the immeasurable disproportion between the reality of their lives and the immensity of the universe.  It lay in their realisation that there are no certitudes in life apart from the absolute unimportance of what is known, compared to the greatness of the unknown, which is nevertheless the only thing that matters.  In my opinion, this is the truth that is infinitely superior to any factual truth about their lives. (p. 166)

What is truth, in this deceptive novel?  The storytellers can’t even agree about basic elements such as the appearance of the two strangers…

Perhaps it is because in retelling our various encounters, each one of us is intent on honesty, as well as the absolute commitment to memory that inspires what we storytellers, with our voracious appetite for physical detail, call the imagination.  And so it transpires that even as we free ourselves from the bondage of time, we deliver ourselves into ever more subtle bonds of our own making.  But then again, to rephrase a question I asked earlier, what is the truth?  Do we speak the truth, or do various, often incompatible versions of the truth speak through us?  Especially here, in the Jemaa, where what matters at any given moment is only that which is most significant.  That which holds attention.  That which convinces.  Now, and for the next several hours or years.  That which is beautiful, above all, and forged of love, because truth is beauty’s sister.  Like the luminous young woman and her dark and taciturn companion, truth and beauty redeem each other.  (p. 76)

The Storyteller of Marrakesh is a very clever piece of meta-fiction which is not only a beguiling mystery but also an opportunity to explore all sorts of ideas.

Author: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya
Title: The Storyteller of Marrakesh
Publisher: Alma Books, 2011
ISBN: 9781846881824
Source: Kingston Library

Buy it from Fishpond:  The Storyteller of Marrakesh or any good bookshop.


Responses

  1. Sounds fascinating, Lisa. And it would make a great companion read to Season of Migration to the North, which also explores notions of storytelling and the West’s so-called corruption of Arabic-Africa.

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    • I’ve ordered Season of Migration, so I’ll be able to compare them:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] I understand to be classical storytelling form.  (I learned about this storytelling technique from The Storyteller of Marrakesh by Joydeep Roy Bhattacharya). I admired Pamuk’s homage to the anonymous painters who […]

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