Book review: The Puppet

I just reviewed The Puppet, by Libyan novelist Ibrahim Al-Koni (recently translated by University of Texas Press). I'm a great admirer of Al-Koni's work but was not particularly impressed with this book:

Perhaps one of the reasons The Puppet disappoints is that, for the most part, it doesn't take place in the desert. The novel is the middle instalment of a three-part trilogy al-Koni penned in the late 1990s, charting the decline and moral corruption of a nomadic tribe after its settlement in an oasis and the subsequent shift towards more sedentary and commercial ways. The puppet of the title is the would-be leader Aghulli, who is manipulated and betrayed by the tribe's noblemen and traders.

In his introduction, the translator William M Hutchins (who has translated al-Koni's Anubis and The Seven Veils of Seth, as well as Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy) connects al-Koni's work to the medieval Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldoun's theory of cyclical social expansion and disintegration. The book is also reminiscent of the Saudi writer Abdul-Rahman Munif's masterful Cities of Salt trilogy, which charts - with much greater nuance and historical specificity - the disorienting transformation of a nomadic population into a sedentary work force.

The rot of society, the temptations of settled and "civilised" life - as opposed to the purity of the traditional nomadic existence - is a recurring theme in al-Koni's work. In The Bleeding of the Stone, the shepherd Asouf lives as a hermit in the mountains. The arrival of two modern hunters represents the eruption of human evil into his innocent natural world. In Gold Dust, the hero chooses his camel companion over his family and reputation. The opposition between the corrupting demands of society and nomadic freedom is romantic and sometimes simplistic, but al-Koni imbues his characters' longing for the desert as a spiritual homeland with pathos and urgency.

The Puppet unfortunately retreads this familiar territory without adding anything new. There is no tension about the oasis' future, no ambiguity over the characters' natures and motivations. One of the general charms of al-Koni's work is that his characters are both archetypal and sui generis. Here, they are just archetypes: the puppet, the hero, the merchant, the lover.

Nonetheless, this is a writer very much worth discovering. There are several other works by Al-Koni available in English and I'd recommend starting there (in particular with The Bleeding of the Stone).