Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tahar Ben Jelloun's The Sand Child - what's Borges doing here?

Jorge Luis Borges is a writer with whom I feel very comfortable. He's had as much impact on the way I think about books as just about anyone. Don't know how much that really shows up here.

I have read a few contemporary novels that make their debt to Borges explicit. W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn (1999) and Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996) both used Borges as a touchstone. My understanding of Borges was an enormous help in finding a way into these challenging books. Maybe I was pointed in some narrow, or wrong directions, who knows. But I was inside the books, not just scratching my head.

Borges' presence guarantees nothing, though. Orham Pamuk's The New Life (1997) was littered with Borgesian ideas. But at the end of the book I was still baffled, lost. The Borges life raft failed me.

In Tahar Ben Jelloun's The Sand Child (1985) a Moroccan father of seven daughters demands a son. When his eighth child, another daughter, is born, he finds a solution: he declares that the child is a boy. One might think - I did - that this deception, and its various complications and implications, would be the subject of the novel, and would be sufficiently interesting. I was startled, then, to find that by page 60 of 165, our hero was not only an adult, but a widower. Now what?

The story fragments. Different tellers push the character in different directions. One narrator ends Ahmed / Zahra's story with appalling violence. His listeners hate it: "Your story is terrible!" (111). They supply new, better endings, all, they insist, true.

So maybe I should not have been surprised when a blind Argentinean writer shows up to narrate a couple of chapters:

"I told myself that by inventing stories with living people and throwing them into forked paths or houses filled with sand, I had ended up imprisoned in this room with a character or, rather, a riddle, two faces of the same being completely entrammeled in an unfinished story, a story of ambiguity and flight!" (140)

Labyrinths, mysterious books and artifacts, The Arabian Nights. Why it's Señor Borges himself, visiting a Moroccan novel at the invitation of Mr. Ben Jelloun. The Sand Child is primarily about storytelling. Everyone interested in Islamic gender issues who picked up the novel has been tricked.

I don't understand The Sand Child well, even though Borges once again helped, pointing out a possible path. That Laila Lalami novel I read also pulled in the storytelling theme at the end. Tahir Shah's book In Arabian Nights (2009) is explicitly about Moroccan storytelling. Hey, maybe there's a pattern here.

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