What, who, and…when?
Itʹs odd to find a book of more than 500 pages where plot and character donʹt matter. Yet The Fetishists is just such a book. There are a handful of main characters: Musa (who is also referred to as "the Dervish"), Udad (who roams the desert peaks and whose name means Barbary sheep), Adda (usually just called the Leader), Tenere (often referred to as "the princess"), Anay (Tenereʹs uncle, and the Sultan of Waw), and Okha, a nobleman who is Udadʹs rival for Tenereʹs affections. But you could just as easily say there are no "main characters", and that everyone –including the acacia trees, the djinn, and the desert lizards – is equally important.
Al-Koni suggests, in the afterword, that the inspiration for the novel was a bet between his brother and another young man, who scaled a cliff face in a wager over camels. In The Fetishists, Udad is challenged by Okha to climb a similar cliff. Udadʹs winnings, should he make it, is Tenereʹs heart. But this wager is not at the centre of the novel. The book is designed less like a triangle – with action that rises to a central climax – than a giant, patterned carpet.
That does not mean the novel is timeless. We are given a year marker near the end, when we hear that, "For more than a century, Wawʹs ruins towered over the plain. ... Then the famous floods of 1913 washed away all the structures, leaving not even one stone resting atop another." It was 1913 when the Italian army violently flooded in and seized Ghadames, the oasis town nearest to where al-Koni was born.
The characters in The Fetishists – who lived more than a century before the arrival of the Italians – do express interest in the world beyond their desert. We hear nothing of the Ottoman rulers, although we do hear about the Almoravid dynasty-that-was. There are passing mentions of cities to the north and we even hear about the Christians, although only when a traderʹs family is kidnapped and sold off into slavery.
It is not a book for every reader. At times the translation is somewhat disjointed, slipping into English colloquialisms that tend to break the flow. Yet if al-Koniʹs shorter Bleeding of the Stone and Gold Dust are small paintings you can hang on a living-room wall, then The Fetishists is a giant multi-room museum piece. It asks to be read in stages, and puzzled over, as the hot qibli wind blows another handful of sand into your mouth.
Marcia Lynx Qualey
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