Celestial Bodies

The Man Booker International Prize long list contained a number of surprises this year, but perhaps the most unexpected inclusion was Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies (translated by Marilyn Booth). This is partly because its publisher, Sandstone Press, is perhaps the most remote in the UK, based in the small Highland town of Dingwall, and not particularly associated with translated literature (though one of its most successful series is Volker Kutscher’s Babylon Berlin); and partly because Alharthi is from the equally tiny country of Oman, with a population of under five million. The novel is of a type which would normally not attract me – the family saga (the very useful family tree which prefaces the story is a clue) – but is undeniably told with great skill.

As a family saga, Celestial Bodies lacks a single central character. The blurb identifies the three daughters of Azzan and Salima – Mayya, Asam and Khawla – but it is Mayya’s husband, Abdallah, from whose point of view every second chapter is written, presented in a different font to differentiate it from the third person narrative, the chapters of which are also headed by character names, emphasising that this is a novel of many characters. The three daughters all have different characters. Asima is a bookworm – “The thought of the enormous pleasure of books quickened Asima’s pace” we are told – whereas Khawla is portrayed as more concerned with her looks:

“As usual Khawla was scrunched over in front of her mirror.”

Mayya is the quietest of the sisters:

“Mayya considered silence to be the greatest of human acts, the sum of perfection.”

She is the first married, to Abdallah, who falls for her on a visit with his father. Though they are married for many years, he is never certain that his love for her is returned:

“Do you love me, Mayya? I asked her, once everyone else was asleep. She was startled, I could see that. She said nothing and then she laughed.”

Mayya, we learn, was already in love with another man when she married Abdallah, praying, “I only want a tiny glimpse of him, only one more time.” Love is a frequent subject through the four generations which Celestial Bodies covers. Mayya gives up her love for the marriage her parents wish her to make; Asima similarly marries when asked though she has no previous affections:

“Her heart was vacant enough, so why would it not open up for Khalid?”

Khawla, on the other hand, regards herself as engaged to her cousin Nasir as a result of a childhood promise and refuses the match her parents have made for her:

“She would kill herself if her father insisted on this marriage.”

The novel does not seek to set romantic love above other relationships, however: Asima’s husband is loving but when Nasir returns from Canada it is only because he has run out of money and he leaves a Canadian girlfriend behind him. Though he marries Khawla:

“For ten years, Nasir returned to Oman once every two years to see the new child in his house and to leave Khawla pregnant again.”

More generally, the novel does not seek to portray the family, and country’s, adoption of Western values as ‘progress’ in a simple and unquestioning way. Even the abolition of slavery is treated in a subtle manner, causing a rift between Zarifa and her son, Sanjar, who tells her, “We are free – the law says so,” while she remains loyal to her master, Abadallah’s father. Instead we see scenes repeating themselves, as when Abdallah reprimands his son, Salim:

“Seconds after I had hit Salim I was assailed by a terrible and overwhelming sense that I had just become my father’s twin.”

This sense of repetition is emphasised by the novel’s non-chronological structure. This comes both from Abdallah’s chapters which are presented as a jumble of memories while on a plane journey, and from the rest of the novel, which skilfully moves back and forwards in time from chapter to chapter, and within chapters using phrases such as, “Twenty-three years later, when she would smash her daughter’s mobile phone to bits in anger…” and, “How could Mayya have seen on her baby daughter’s brow, the evenings of sleeplessness that would come as she reached her early twenties…”

This structure shows a great deal of craft on Alharthi’s part but, though the presentation is skilful, the author’s intent does not seem to go much beyond presentation. It is a family saga, in other words, as it proposes the telling of the family’s story, and all the associated tales, as an end in itself. This is not so much a criticism, as the root of my dissatisfaction with the genre. On the other hand, I couldn’t be more pleased that such a small press, and such a small country, features on the long list this year.

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6 Responses to “Celestial Bodies”

  1. Man Booker International Prize 2019 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (Oman), translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth (Sandstone Press) […]

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Unsurprisingly, I had never heard of this until it appeared on the longlist, but it actually sounds like the type of story I would enjoy. As you say, it’s lovely to see a book from such a small press and a lesser-known country getting some attention. (Sandstone Press is another new name to me.) Did the judges give an indication as to why they had selected it for the list?

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s a very enjoyable book and I think you would like it. I just prefer my fiction to have some kind of political context (I don’t mean it has to be about politics!) but that’s a personal preference. I can see why it made the shortlist.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting. I’ve actually been to Oman a couple of times on business. It’s an extremely pleasant country, for the visitor anyway (I can’t speak to the domestic experience) and really quite chill.

    The book though, small publisher is great and it sounds well executed, but like you I don’t hugely care for family sagas as a genre. Probably then not one for me It’ll be interesting to see how it fares and if it makes the shortlist, but to be fair there’s no reason family sagas shouldn’t be eligible for prizes. Like most things it takes skill to do well.

    • 1streading Says:

      I agree, and this is very skillfully constructed – and it made the shortlist! If you’ve been in Oman you might find it interesting as it certainly gives a vivid picture of life there.

  4. Blogbummel März/April 2019 – buchpost Says:

    […] das es immerhin auf die Longlist des Booker Prizes geschafft hat, und zwar die Familiengeschichte Celestial Bodies von Jokha […]

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