This is the "Land of Zanj," as the Muslim merchants call Zanzibar—in Arabic, "the country of the blacks. It is an old, old land, known at the beginning of the third millennium BC by the Pharaohs of Egypt and rediscovered by Greek sailors searching for the mysterious "Land of Punt," where abound gold, spices, ostrich feathers, and the ivory of fabulous wild beasts. The story told by this novel defies summary. Its narrator is a refugee from an East African island nation who is seeking to enter England.
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This is the "Land of Zanj," as the Muslim merchants call Zanzibar—in Arabic, "the country of the blacks. It is an old, old land, known at the beginning of the third millennium BC by the Pharaohs of Egypt and rediscovered by Greek sailors searching for the mysterious "Land of Punt," where abound gold, spices, ostrich feathers, and the ivory of fabulous wild beasts.
The story told by this novel defies summary. Its narrator is a refugee from an East African island nation who is seeking to enter England. Since his home country was once a British possession, he qualifies for asylum—yet, he is traveling on a fake passport. Although he is a cultivated man, he has been advised at home to pretend he neither speaks nor understands English. Why is this transaction, nominally straightforward, so mysterious? An immigration agent tries to dissuade the refugee from entering the cold, miserable lands of Europe, and confiscates a box of incense—the only valuable item in his bag.
He is sent to a detention center, but a social worker named Rachel, who specializes in difficult immigration cases, intervenes on his behalf. The narrator begins to tell Rachel stories, starting with the tale of the origins of his incense. He lays on story after story for her, until the strands that connect past and present, magic and real, become thickly—andseductively—meshed.
The strands mesh because in this novel we are traveling the memories and histories of the Indian Ocean. We have become part of this universe that unfolds in front of us at a level where picturesque or exoticism become simply beauty and diversity.
We are the Sultan before Scheherazade asking for more stories, like a vital need, a question of life and death. A sudden change in the course of the narrative brings in new characters, multiplying suddenly and with bravado performance the perspectives of the original story. From one anecdote to the next, the intervention of yet another protagonist, the story of seduction and betrayal continues to unravel.
From his new home in England, the narrator takes us deeper into his past. The thread of the story winds backwards to the monsoon of , when an incense merchant, cultured and cultivated, whose politeness is "like a kind of talent, an elaboration of forms and manners into something abstract and poetic," seduces and dishonors the mother of a certain Latif.
Seven years later, the monsoon brings civilian strife and a Marxist coup. Houses change hands, families are ruined, governments change and fall. Nor is the refugee only a victim: as his story goes on, he encounters other refugees, here in England, who were ruined by his own father—including the same Latif.
Slowly, the story takes shape. The refugee acquires a voice and a name, and as he does so, not only his identity and history but that of his country, with the deep changes wrought in it by colonization and revolution, become clear with a vividness that could never have been captured by a more conventional narration.
These circular winds, like orbs of incense smoke, pull us further, deeper, into the mosaic of familial novels. While we have you Confronting the many challenges of COVID—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
By the Sea
Buy it at a discount at BOL Exlie offers the novelist or poet one of the richest seams of fuel for writing. It provides an ending that is no ending at all: memory remakes whatever facts precede departure, glossing them with imagination. And whether the exile is voluntary or forced, literal or metaphorical, displacement opens up a vivid cut of loss, a liability for myriad reinterpretation and retelling of whatever stories might lurk there, silted up in the alluvial grit of time. In fact, the literature of exile has proper claim to being the most venerable of genres. Think of the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, now 5, years old and dense as ever with revelations; or the Odyssey actually, Homer is said to have filched scenes from Gilgamesh. It is the fixed perspective of exile that motors this, his sixth novel: by the time the central character opens the narrative, things have already fallen apart behind him.
If you really must leave home, don't go without your incense
Jujas The paradise both these men have left is Zanzibar, an island in the Indian Ocean swept by the winds of the Musim, bringing traders with their perfumes and sfa and a unique mix of cultures and histories. The story told by this novel defies summary. No trivia or quizzes yet. Well-written beautifully poetic and evocative and full of on-point psychological insights about two men who meet in England and who have pasts in Zanzibar that connect them.