The Short Version: An unnamed Sudanese narrator returns home to his village after studying abroad for some time. He meets a peculiar man, Mustafa Sa’eed, who moved to the village during his time away. Mustafa recounts some tales of his wild and adventurous life – and then disappears. The narrator continues on with his life but Sa’eed and his story linger in his mind and hang over the village proper until catastrophe strikes.
The Review: Why does Mustafa Sa’eed apparently have the ability to convince people to commit suicide? This is the question I’ve had for the whole book and one I feel like, were I reading this 8-10 years ago, I’d be expecting to write a five-paragraph-essay on it. But I don’t have an answer and I don’t quite understand. Is the whole thing an allegory? Did I just miss something?
Because for the most part, I really quite enjoyed this book. (Thanks again, Jeremy, for moving and getting rid of some books.) But in the end, I’m a bit mystified still. I suppose that isn’t a bad thing – but so many questions are left unanswered and that frustrates me a bit in this situation.
Interestingly enough, I was reminded quite a bit of The Alexandria Quartet and how I felt while reading those books. The writing is not up to Durrell’s level and it didn’t capture me in the same magical, mystical way… but elements felt like kindred spirits. The mysterious man, the narrator who is frustrated by people outside of his understanding, the murders, the thought/feeling of being in Africa right before/right after WWII. I felt some of those same things here, just not done quite as well.
Salih’s writing is quite good, I must say. His description of Mustafa, for example, is brilliant and there were so many moments that conjured up specific images in my head without my really needing to do any work. It’s just that there were also stretches where I wasn’t so bowled over. Where I was, dare I say, bored. I mean, this is barely a novel – it’s arguably a novella. Pretty sad if I’m getting bored. And then, the simple low-key simplicity of how things play out made me feel a little like I had been played.
See, the most interesting thing about the book is the concept of this mysterious figure who has appeared and who clearly seems to have a hidden past and then he disappears again. Bits and pieces of his life and the rest of his story are revealed throughout the novel, but I (quite simply) wanted more. I wanted to understand what happened between Sa’eed and those women. I wanted to understand why our narrator makes the decision he does at the end. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t feeling I’d suddenly entered a surreal universe – the description of the hidden room seems far too large and far too fake for what we’d established as reality. And yet, we just go with it.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I really enjoyed it. I have some thoughts but even as I work to write them down, they mostly fade away. I think the book was a bit better than average but also nothing wildly extraordinary. Sometimes that just happens, I guess.