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Book Review

There's sadness, and little magic, in this tale of Arabian nights

Yousef Al-Mohaimeed's work is banned in his native Saudi Arabia. Yousef Al-Mohaimeed's work is banned in his native Saudi Arabia. (Huda Saleh)
Email|Print| Text size + By Saul Austerlitz
February 6, 2008

Wolves of the Crescent Moon
By Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
Penguin, 179 pp., paperback, $14

Of all the styles in the profusion of marketplace wares available to the contemporary novelist, perhaps none is so capable of transcending national boundaries as magical realism. Born in Latin America, magical realism has spread beyond its birthplace and across the world, from Poland to India. Birds do it, bees do it, so why not Saudis? After all, what better place than one of the most repressive countries on earth for a literary style that seeks to express truths incapable of being otherwise formulated? In "Wolves of the Crescent Moon," Saudi novelist Yousef Al-Mohaimeed's first novel to be published outside the Middle East, he fiddles with the knobs and presses all the buttons on his new toy, but seems unable to steer the splendid vehicle once driven by Borges and García Márquez.

To begin with, Al-Mohaimeed's magical realism is of a tempered, partial sort, seeking to invest contemporary Saudi society with a patina of age and inscrutability, like something out of the "Thousand and One Nights." "Wolves" intertwines the fates of three Saudi outcasts, each denied a full life by virtue of deformity. As in a fairy tale, each of the three men is missing an essential body part, defined by its absence. For Turad, who has escaped his ministry job, where he was subject to the slings and arrows of his coworkers, it is his ear; for his friend Tawfiq, it is his manhood, taken from him after being kidnapped and sold into slavery; and for the child whose fate is told in the file Turad reads while whiling away his time waiting for a bus to depart the hellish city where he has been living, it is an eye.

This trio is brought together by fate, and by the all-seeing eye of the novelist, who finds in them a potent symbol of Saudi Arabia's moral failings. A society enamored with its comfort finds little energy to assist the downtrodden. Turad seeks to escape the barren promises of youth, when he ran free as a Bedouin highwayman, and fate's wicked sense of humor - something he is reminded of every time he looks in the mirror. The snatching of his ear after a highway robbery gone terribly wrong has become, for Turad, a representation of all the blows he has been forced to endure. "How on earth could someone who possessed such a wonderfully perfect ear be sad?" Turad asks wonderingly of a melancholy Turkish sandwich vendor he glimpses.

For Turad, every second in the nightmare metropolis is an eternity of agony. He announces to himself, as if repeating a careworn mantra: "All I want is a place where people will respect me, not abuse me or treat me like a dog. I ran away from my own folk because of the tribe. I ran away from the palace, and from the parking lot, and from the ministry, and now at last I'm trying to run away from Hell."

Turad's friend and coworker Tawfiq has an infinitely more horrific tale to tell. Lured from his childhood home by the tantalizing smell of cooking meat, Tawfiq is thrust into a never-ending calamity whose outlines are defined by rape, castration, and permanent servitude. It is the senses, above all, that trick Turad and Tawfiq, leading them astray. "The first time I sold my humanity for the smell of gristle and became a slave, and the second I sold my manhood for the smell of cotton and became a eunuch. May God destroy all smells." Tawfiq finds employment in the home of a wealthy benefactor, but his respite as a chauffeur is exceedingly short-lived, leaving him little other than painful memories and the knowledge that his very dreams have been stifled by life's innate cruelty.

Having snatched a file from the ministry where he works, Turad leafs through the documents about a foundling whose fate is intimately familiar to him. Cast aside by his parents, who are driven apart by the superiority complex of the Bedouin, the infant is abandoned to the street, where his eye is taken by rats. After some years, the boy is unexpectedly adopted by a wealthy family - the same one Tawfiq works for - before being just as unexpectedly abandoned. Like his onetime driver, the boy is stunned senseless by Saudi life's ability to crush the weak.

Banned in Saudi Arabia, "Wolves of the Crescent Moon" is a distinctly unflattering portrait of a country with little patience for the suffering of others. It is also an incomplete portrait, whose disparate pieces do not properly add up. Magical realism thrives on disjunction - on the intersection between reality and fantasy - but without a solid grounding in a familiar society, any magic will undoubtedly sink beneath the waves. Readers with an interest in the Middle East will be fascinated by a Saudi novel regardless of its quality; it is a shame that "Wolves" offers little else to be enthusiastic about beyond its provenance.

Saul Austerlitz is the author of "Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video From the Beatles to the White Stripes."

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