August 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

fiction

Voices of the Desert by Nelida Pinon and Cliff Landers

Imagine Sheherazade as an actual person, beautiful and talented, who bravely volunteers to marry a fat Caliph who has the nasty habit of slaughtering his wives after taking their virginity. Her stories are so brilliant that, instead of dying, she saves herself and 1000 other potential brides from a terrible fate. The Caliph once caught his wife ravenously fucking a servant. His jealousy was such that afterwards, he murdered women rather than feel that way again.

Nélida Piñon takes on this premise in Voices of the Desert, telling the true story of Sheherazade as a girl living in time, space, and history -- a girl whose body, artistic calling, confinement, and imminent death are all too real. The book is so unwaveringly true, in fact, that the reader experiences the cloying narrowness of Sheherazade's life and feels trapped in the chambers where she lives with her sister, Dinazarda and a slave-girl, Jasmine. Scheherazade is an eternally alluring character. It's a great idea to embody her realistically, as a woman of a certain era, a writer, a practitioner of Islam, a sexual being, a human living life and frightened of death. I heard about this book and got excited, thinking of Christa Wolf's Medea (one of my favorite novels) and other works that take a deep, fresh look at the intersection of myth and history.

In contrast to the various vintage versions of Arabian Nights, which are un-PC orgies of real adventure, and in contrast to Naguib Mahfouz's Arabian Nights and Days (one of my other favorite novels), this book is a slog. It took me about 1,001 nights to finish it -- well, maybe more like sixty -- I would pick it up, trudge through a few dense pages of sex scenes (usually involving vaginal "mucus" and glistening "members") and reiteration, and put it down in defeat and read anything I could get my hands on instead. I tried to teach myself Latin and Physics. I flipped through the phone book. I stared at crumbs on the table. I tried to read the future in the lines on my own palms.

The way Voices of the Desert is structured, each little chapter (there are only 64, even if it felt like 1,000) retells the story of Sheherazade, her Vizier father, her relationship with her sister and slave girl, and the Caliph's jealousy. Each slowly reveals a tiny shard of new information. Maybe this approach is brilliant. Maybe, like Sheherazade, Piñon is teasing the reader into keeping the book alive forever and ever, instead of hungrily finishing it and picking up a new book. Maybe she is saving thousands of hapless debut novels from being read. Maybe the pacing and frustration of endless veils is on purpose. I haven't read any of Nélida Piñon's other work yet, so I can't be sure. The third person narrative of Voices deeply scrutinizes the intimate psychology at play in every moment of Sheherazade's borrowed time, but it demands such patience that it's hard to care.

Voices of the Desert reads as an inversion of Sherherazade's story -- instead of looking outward into a vast world of epic adventures, it turns inward, to her tiny chamber, to the sometimes unbearable heat, to the center of her sexually inexperienced body. Instead of keeping you hooked by languorously spinning delicious tales that spiral into tangents to last forever, it punishes you by repetition, by slowness, by not ending. There are different ways a storyteller can use veils, to be sure, just as there are different ways to tell myths and histories. I'm not sure that Piñon succeeds in unveiling the "real" Sheharazade, at least not the way that Christa Wolf shows us a true Cassandra and Medea. Ironically, the most persuasive character in this desert interior is the jealous Caliph, reeling from the unshakable image of a slave's large penis, hard and dripping, moving out of his wife's body. Maybe this is the Caliph's story, and not Sheherazade's after all.

 

Voices of the Desert by Nelida Pinon and Cliff Landers
Knopf
ISBN: 0307266672
272 Pages

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