Category Archives: 197 Books. 197 Countries

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi. Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth

Celestial Bodies by Jokha AlharthiTitle: Celestial Bodies
Author: Jokha Alharthi
Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth
Publisher: Sandstone Press
ISBN: 978-1912240166
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

One thing about being on any shadow panel of any literary award is that you by default get to read great diverse literature. Being on the shadow panel of Man Booker International Prize for two years now has made my literary life so to say not only enriching but also illuminating. It has made me see perspectives, change opinions, remain steadfast about some opinions, and over all made me interact with people across the world about literature and life.

This time around, Celestial Bodies from the long and the short list is that one book that enriched my reading life and to a very large extent made me see lives that weren’t otherwise known to me. Anyway, back to Celestial Bodies. This is one of the top three books I am rooting for, for the win that is. It is a story of womanhood – of it means to the women in the book and to the society that has built structures of patriarchy to be followed. At the same time, it is about the changing socio-economic structures and how those impact the family.

There is Maya, the eldest daughter of the family who prefers not to challenge what the family expects of her and agrees to marry the son of a rich merchant. The second one, Asma seeks an education. The youngest daughter, Khawla insists on waiting for her cousin who has told her that he will be his partner. All he does is immigrate to Canada and all her hopes are dashed. The younger generation then moves to Muscat and there also their lives are not easy. At the same time, the book is also about the men, whom we get to know of as we go along – Maya’s husband, his father, and not to forget the slave system at play which bothered me greatly as I was reading the book.

There is a lot going on in the book – from the emancipation of women to what men feel to the social structure of Oman, and also not to forget the younger generation. Alharthi packs all of it together tightly and not once do you feel that the strands of any story are left untended to. From the village of al-Awafi (fictional by the way) to Muscat, each phase and turn of events is seen through different eyes – sometimes unbelievable and others completely heartbreaking. The writing is empathetic for sure, and yet doesn’t shy from the grim reality of the world of patriarchy, in a land ruled by men.

Marilyn Booth’s translation is on point. It isn’t easy to translate a book of multiple narrations and sometimes also leaning toward stream of consciousness (mildly). Celestial Bodies has the dreamlike quality to it, without being superficial or flimsy and that’s what you take as a reader – the inherent story, the characters, and what you end up feeling.

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99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai

99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai Title: 99 Nights in Logar
Author: Jamil Jan Kochai
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN: 978-1408898420
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

While 99 nights in Logar may seem to have been set in a culture and time alien to most readers, the universality of theme is astounding, which you only begin to realize as the pages turn. This is where the genius of Jamil Jan Kochai only begins. You don’t need a tour guide to take you through the terrains of Afghanistan or a map to get you acquainted to the landscape. You just need to go with the story and that’s enough.

I must admit though initially I did face a problem with who was whom in the family and what were the relationships and more than anything else, the confusion about names. However, that ended soon enough and from thereon it was a journey worth taking.

This debut is narrated by Marwand, a 12-year-old boy who is raised in America and takes a trip with his parents and brother to a village in Afghanistan in 2005. The American war is almost over, and no one knows what the future has in store.

The book starts with a search – Marwand, and his uncles and cousin – Gul, Dawood and Zia set out to find his uncle’s dog Budabash. The dog hasn’t been seen since he savaged Marwand’s index finger on the first day of his arrival. A lot of things happen on the course of finding the dog – people drop out of the search party for one reason or the other, stories are exchanged (which to me is the brilliance of the novel) – over a cup of chai, waiting for things to happen in the course of the search, or even while doing nothing.

Kochai tells us the story of a family and he doesn’t do it keeping the West at the fore. The images are spot-on, you feel a part of the narrative, and for most Farsi or Pashto words there is no English translation given, which is quite natural given the people in this region speak that way. Coming back to the family, Jamil Jan Kochai weaves the story back and forth in time through the stories told by everyone not just the boys – and then it only further changes hands of time.

99 nights in Logar is all about memory. Memory is at the heart of this novel and throughout the book. Whether is it recollection of stories, or even how things happened a week ago or two days ago, Kochai manages to make the story funny, filled with nostalgia, angst, and a great coming-of-age experience.