Friday, March 4, 2011

Orientalish Lit Hit: The Sacred Night

After a first read of This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun a few years ago, I have wanted to read this earlier work. The book is part of a trilogy that begins with The Sand Child. The Sacred Night picks up themes that run the other work I've read: injustice, the individual's ultimate "aloneness" in the face of the world, and the act of storytelling.

Best in The Sacred Night is the presence of storytelling as a life force. Here, the continued story of a girl raised as a boy to overcome the Islamic tradition of allowing only men to inherit a family's wealth hinges around the act of storytelling. A storyteller opens the novel with a dreamlike sequence where we see this woman, who appears as a man, uses her stories to make a living.

As the book steps farther back, a clearer storyline emerges. After her father's death, the narrator south where she loses her virginity in a confusing rape scene and then joins the house where she falls in love and learns from a blind man the art of writing and the raw value of holding onto memory. The blind man leads her into his dreams where there are factories of words. Sensual scenes where women exist as forgotten, discarded words seem to illustrate the beauty of forgotten stories, which are ultimately all stories.

The culmination of the novel shows her falling in and out of madness in prison, which reminds me of the power of Ben Jelloun's This Blinding Absence of Light. For me, the downfall of this novel is the storyline of the demoralized Muslim woman. While reality might fuel the original stereotype, the overuse of this as a plot line (and in a bigger sense to justify other acts of aggression) makes the storyline itself feel formulaic. That said, the ornate writing style and successful dream-making made The Sacred Night an evocative read.

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