The thing about reading literature written by authors from other countries is that, sometimes, it can be as fascinating and otherworldly an experience as if one is reading fantasy. That’s because even with the dizzying globalisation caused by the rapid popularity of the internet, and the ease with which we can peek into each other’s drawing rooms through social media, there are still communities and cultures and ways of living that remain a mystery to those who have no exposure to such lifestyles.
Jokha Alharthi’s novel Celestial Bodies — which happens to be the first novel originally written in Arabic to ever win the Man Booker International Prize — pulls the unacquainted reader into a dense, sometimes confusing, introduction to the changes that Oman has undergone in the last few decades, succeeding in creating a layered look at the past and how it affects the future of all her characters.
Translated by Marilyn Booth, the novel’s main story revolves around the lives of two Omani families connected by marriage and a crowded cast of supporting characters — which makes the family tree given at the beginning of the book somewhat invaluable to the confused reader. It is through this interconnected group of people bound together by marriage, proximity or circumstance that Alharthi shows how history has shaped the lives of the people living in Oman, and how the recent modernisation has wrought a battle between tradition and reform, between sustained power hierarchies against newer ways of thinking, and between strictly enforced gender norms battling for supremacy with a newer generation’s ideas. Alharthi stretches the narrative over three generations, across the 20th century and into the early 21st, showing with a skilled hand how the pressures caused by social change affect every aspect of her characters’ lives.
Told between alternating viewpoints, we see the changing times mostly through the third-person perspective of three sisters, the eldest of whom, Mayya, is married to our fourth major protagonist, Abdallah, the only character given a first-person voice. Many other characters also weave in and out of the narrative; the focus of their gaze is not only our major characters, but also their own personal needs and desires. This makes for a method of storytelling that attempts to condense into a very small space the complex social and cultural changes occurring in Oman, told through the characters’ personal experiences.
The book is written in over 60 short chapters of almost four pages each and does not follow a linear pattern. Rather, the story is told as a restrained stream-of-consciousness, which shifts back and forth in time, not only between chapters but also between paragraphs. In this manner, you can go from Mayya’s daughter, London, in her lap, to London’s marriage and then back to Mayya as a young girl all within the space of a single page.
An English translation of an Arabic novel, which won the Man Booker International Prize, is a complex story of personal and social transformations in Oman
This rapid back and forth within the non-linear progression of the story, as well as the complex structure of relationships that make for frequent referrals to the family tree, can get, at times, very confusing. This confusion, however, feels like a very deliberate act on the part of the writer, who constantly juxtaposes the old and the new to highlight how starkly the changes brought by the 20th century have affected the lives of her characters.
By shifting from the streets of modern-day Muscat to her (fictitious) village of Al Awafi, by placing side by side the three sisters Mayya, Asma and Khawla with Mayya’s daughter and Mayya’s mother-in-law, as well as a whole host of other side characters from each generation, it is ensured that the reader manages to look at the cohesive whole of the history of Oman, rather than reading from only a small chunk of the population.
Representing a microcosm of Oman seems to be what the author set out to do, because she keeps touching the same theme repeatedly, looking at the monumental changes wrought in the country over a period of five decades, through the eyes of characters separated by gender and social class as well as mindset. By showing how different characters react to tests of loss, to achievements and struggles and to the idea of migration, Alharthi seeks to explain how complex the wide variety of human endeavour can be.
The only shortcoming of this all-encompassing method of storytelling is that the reader is left wanting more, not spending enough time with certain characters to know them properly, and feeling bereft of the opportunity to get to know those who are left underdeveloped. Besides introducing interesting characters such as Najiyah, the free-spirited Bedouin who lives as an independent woman running her own business, or Zarifa, a former slave girl who becomes the mistress of a powerful merchant and navigates her world accordingly, Alharthi also draws up a variety of other side characters, all similarly multi-faceted, who could have easily taken up a hundred more pages with their own plots lines, with no complaint forthcoming from the reader.
There is a strong sense of history in the storytelling, with references to treaties and wars fought at the political level and how their repercussions trickled down to the common man. Alharthi shows, again and again, ordinary people struggling with a newly emerging culture, which is a juxtaposition of ancient traditions against a modern way of thinking. She threads slavery into her story, which was only outlawed in Oman in 1970, and shows how its dark intricacies affected the characters that populate the novel throughout. By showing the mother who does not understand why her son wants to escape from the threatening shadow of their slave master, or the grown man who yearns for the comfort of the slave woman who raised him, Alharthi speaks of how something such as the concept of slavery, which seems so black and white in some corners of the world, can be as complicated and controversial as love.
With characters who feel real and anxieties that don’t come across as fabricated for the sake of the plot, Alharthi has managed to create that rare piece of writing where each character has their individual agency brightly illuminated. If there is any weakness, it is caused only by the sheer breadth of characters with whom Alharthi has populated her writing; it might become hard to feel invested in any singular plotline, given how they are woven together into a tangled skein. In spite of the myriad complications, the novel is still a treat to read, if only for how dedicatedly it takes on the challenge of representing the country, and how well it succeeds in doing so. As a Man Booker International Prize winner, Alharthi’s writing can only begin to be read more and more, and this is a great thing for every reader out there.
The reviewer is an editor of children’s fiction
By Jokha Alharthi
Translated by Marilyn Booth
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 16th, 2020