Sunday, 27 October 2019


*Independent presses are literature's Amazon rainforest, the oxygen that sustains new voices.  

One of those new voices (at least to readers of English) is Jokha Alharthi, the winner of this year's Man Booker International Prize.  Her work is published by a small independent publisher, Sandstone Press, based in Inverness.

Jokha Alharthi's novel, Celestial Bodies, is structured round generations of an Omani family, and conveys the changing social and political history of Oman through the lives and desires of a core group of characters.  What makes this book so satisfying is the way that the author expects her readers to be active readers, flipping backwards and forwards in time and between characters and voices, picking up the nuances in this tightly structured novel.  

Poetry is highly respected in Arabic culture and it is woven into the story.  Jokha Alharthi herself has a PhD in classical Arabic poetry from the University of Edinburgh and teaches classical Arabic literature at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat.  An uncle and one of her grandfathers were poets.

In Celestial Bodies poetry is particularly important for Azzan.  He and his daughter, Asma, often swap 'instantly composed lines of poetry in playful competition'.  The rules of the game are that the exchanges should have the same rhyme scheme, but one day Asma subverts the game by quoting the openings to poems by al-Samau'al and al-Buhturi in a rhyme scheme different from Azzan's opening.  Asma's excerpts are:

If a person's honour is not sullied by base acts
     then every garment he dons is beauteous

and I guarded myself from what would soil my self
     and held myself above the paltry offerings of the scoundrel. 

But Azzan is having a passionate and (he hopes) secret affair with a Bedouin woman, Najiya bint Shaykha, whom he calls Qamar (the Moon in Arabic).  After this poetic exchange he wonders if his secret is out.  But the reader can sense another layer of allusion - to the marriage that is being arranged for Asma and her sister to Khalid and Ali, the sons of emigrant Issa.   (It is very helpful to have the family tree at the beginning of the book, even if it is printed horizontally!).

Poetry is particulalry prominent in Azzan's affair with Qamar.  He cannot resist addressing her in classical quotations, which express his intense passion, something he has never experienced before.  But does she feel the same?  By the end of the book we realise hers is a here-we-go-again response to the poetry and she wishes he would stop it.

To Azzan Qamar is the Moon, and he tells her 'your beauty is a gift from the Creator'

The strong emotional effect poetry has on Azzan is shown in the chapter 'Asma and the moon'.  He asks his daughter, Asma, now a young bride recently married to Khalid (her sister refused to marry Ali), to recite some of al-Mutanabbi's poetry.   'Asma's voice was subdued at first but it started gathering fervour as she recited:

... lover's nights stretch endless
They show me the full moon I have no craving for
    And hide a moon to which there is no way ... 

Her father's hand went up and Asma stopped.'  She suddenly notices how old her father looks.  He takes a notebook from under his pillow and gives it to Asma to read.  The passage is about the movements of the moon - and symbolises Azzan's inner emotional turmoil.

Celestial Bodies is not a long book but its richness and complexity make it one of the most satisfying novels I have read for several years.  As in poetry, every word counts, and I know that when I read it again I will find more depth in this most accomplished novel.

And don't forget the translator!  Marilyn Booth has done a superb job.  Celestial Bodies does not read like a translation - and that's good enough for me.

Celestial Bodies Jokhar Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth (Sandstone Press p/b £8.99)

*Debbie Taylor in Indie presses 2016-7

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