Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Examiner.com. Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.
In The Storyteller of Marrakesh, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya presents us with a multi-layered novel that juxtaposes the artistry of narration with a collision of cultures in the Jemaa (central square) of Marrakesh. The novel portrays Hassan, the titular storyteller, as he tells a story about a western couple who disappears one night in the Jemaa. In the great tradition of The Arabian Nights, the plot progresses by deferral. To tell his story, Hassan must tell about his childhood, for which he is the only source of information. As he turns to the foreigners, though, he defers to others who encountered the couple so that they can provide their insights into the mystery of what happened to them on that night.
This foreign couple, and especially the woman, Lucia, captivate everyone they encounter. Lucia’s beauty is repeatedly extolled, and it is the one detail on which everyone agrees. Various voices attempt to describe her–a fortune teller, a blind man, an angry cleric and many others–but no one voice claims to capture her completely. If anything, her beauty captures everyone else, and none more completely than Mustafa, the brother of Hassan. Mustafa falls so completely for this woman that he is willing to make a great sacrifice for her. His attachment to the story is what makes the story so important for Hassan.
Given the nature of the narrative, Roy-Bhattacharya is able to show off his lyrical writing and his ability to develop different voices for the different narrators of the tale. He does a wonderful job of showing how the event–the disappearance of the couple–moves to story and eventually to myth. Hassan’s story is not his story at all, nor is it the story of his brother or of the couple. The story belongs to the Jemaa.
Indeed, it is the Jemaa that turns out to be the main character of the novel. The magic feeling of the Jemaa is a constant theme. Roy-Bhattacharya portrays the Jemaa as alternately carnivalesque and sinister. He takes us among the performers and the merchants and we travel with him into the Mosque and the squalid back streets of Marrakesh. The Jemaa, though, is where everything in the novel centers and where it all returns. Hassan and his circle of listeners/co-storytellers is simply a microcosm of the wondrous world made up of the Jemaa.
The Storyteller of Marrakesh is a very good novel that presents a foreign culture in a clear and understandable way. As with many novels that rely on deferral to extend what is otherwise a fairly thin plot, the novel does drag a bit at certain points. Roy-Bhattacharya divides the book into mini-chapter, some of which add little to the novel and others which leave us wishing for more. Ultimately, though, the strengths of this novel far out-weigh its deficiencies.