The Storyteller of Marrakesh

I suppose you could say we were warned. On the first page of The Storyteller of Marrakesh, our eponymous narrator declares that "there is no truth." Instead of truth, he goes on, "I offer you a greater consolation: a dream." He proceeds to advise his audience:

Our varying recollections will erase every familiar landmark … the red sky of Marrakesh will undergo so many metamorphoses that we will consider ourselves fortunate in the end to have any sense of orientation left.

Hassan gathers his listeners every winter in Marrakesh's famed Jemaa el Fna, where his reputation as a storyteller draws him large crowds. At the heart of Hassan's annual tale is the mysterious appearance—and subsequent disappearance—of a young foreign couple, and the role his imprisoned brother Mustafa is believed to have played in their fate. Hassan returns each year to try to make sense of these events of the past, and the novel is most effective in the sections that unspool the shared history of these brothers. But time and time again—whether through Hassan or one of his designated co-narrators who constantly interrupt his narratives with their competing versions of the "truth"—we are peppered with gnomic utterances intended to do truth's heavy lifting. These shifts in perspective and mock profundities endlessly puncture the story's momentum, and make Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya's second novel an enervating and maddening read.

 

To a certain extent, this rocky, twisting narrative journey is probably intended. The Storyteller of Marrakesh appears to be, at its heart, a meditation on storytelling and its discontents, the unreliability of narrators, the fungible nature of "truth." But Roy-Bhattacharya solemnly flourishes obvious points and familiar tropes—perceptions are personal, trust the tale not the teller—as though they were revelations.

 

These are the sort of things that pass for wisdom in The Storyteller of Marrakesh: "Do we speak the truth, or do various, often incompatible versions of the truth speak us?" Or "beauty … is akin to truth, and truth is energy, and energy is always in motion." Or "For beauty, like faith, is food for the soul." The first two don't actually mean anything at all, and the third would be at home on a high-end greeting card. The tone, perhaps seeking to evoke 1001 Nights, comes off as pastiche, bordering on the parodic, a cartoon travelogue which feels—the author's Indian birth and education notwithstanding—very much like a typical westerner's ersatz view of Eastern mysticism and inscrutability. The elaborately artificial mannerisms—Hassan is forever stroking his beard, pausing for effect—compare unfavorably with the Arab streets as we've come to know them through the likes of Naguib Mahfouz, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Laila Lalami, and others.

 

The Storyteller of Marrakesh is billed as the first of a trilogy of novels set in the Muslim world. Roy-Bhattacharya's ambitions and cross-cultural perspectives are to be admired, and his sense of place can be effective—the descriptions of the Jemaa and its surroundings are among the book's finest sections, as in this vision of the area's multifarious reds. "Here the ochre expanse of the sky is mirrored in the tabia bricks and facades … Beyond, hues of cinnabar, rust, crimson, vermillion settle on the snowcapped peaks of the High Atlas Mountains." But in these parlous times, both Western readers and the Arab world deserve less portentous—and more original—interlocutors.

July 25: On this day in 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease at the age of sixty-one.

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