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"I leave nothing to chance and trust my intuition, for across the centuries and through the rocks, everything here is a sign.",
This review is from: Passage of Tears (The Africa List) (Hardcover)
With his elegant and stimulating novel. Djibouti author Abdourahman A. Waberi, now living in France, explores issues of contemporary importance while examining the history of religious extremism and how young people are drawn to it. He does this within the context of an intriguing, often poetic, novel which contains mysteries, a spy narrative, secret identities, a writer speaking from the grave, and a mystical, real-time connection between two characters who never meet during the narrative. As the novel opens, Djibril, a Djibouti native now living in Montreal and working for a North American security company, returns on assignment to his former country after being away for eleven years. He is there on a one-week mission to evaluate for a client whether Djibouti is secure, the political situation stable, and the terrorists under control. Though he has been away for more than a decade, Djibril is not anonymous - he is tracked by unidentified men from the instant he sets foot on the soil.
Chapters about Djibril alternate with narratives by a mysterious prisoner, confined to a tiny cell on a desert island with only a blind old man for company. This prisoner has become a scribe for the old man, his Venerable Master, recording his thoughts on scraps of paper. The prisoner seems to have supernatural knowledge about Djibril, his arrival, and of the fact that he is being tailed, and he is decidedly hostile toward him. Djibril, for his part, is detailing the country's social conditions in his notebook, noting the intrusion of foreigners into the country and their damaging effects. As he investigates, without much in the way of results, he remembers his past, his loving relationship with his grandfather, his difficulties with his mother, his problems with his twin brother and his love for his best friend and soul brother, David, a Jewish boy. The prisoner, however, has harsher memories, and is clearly influenced by the intensity of the blind prophet and his own devotion to him and to Allah.
As he is recording his Venerable Master's words, however, the prisoner is suddenly overcome by a mystical experience: the paper on which he has been recording the Master begins to look as if it has other words, not his own, written there in tiny script, a "palimpsest," and it is foreign, associated with Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish philosopher, critic, and writer. Long passages from this "Book of Ben," continue to raise ideas in conflict with much that the prisoner has learned.
The drama ratchets up when Djibril plans to meet someone who can provide him with information he needs, leading to a climactic final scene. Throughout, Djibril's seemingly casual, comfortable attitudes draw in the reader, in contrast to those of the prisoner, who is distant and driven. Parts of the "Book of Ben" are at times obscure, and a coherent picture of Walter Benjamin's ideas does not fully emerge, but this does not limit their interest or their effects on a reader, including the prisoner. The author deliberately leaves questions unanswered while creating many ironies in his conclusion, and I suspect that I will be thinking of this unsettling, evocative, and memorable novel for weeks to come.