I suppose you could say we were warned. Onthe first page of The Storyteller ofMarrakesh, our eponymous narrator declares that “there is no truth.” Insteadof truth, he goes on, “I offer you a greater consolation: a dream.” Heproceeds to advise his audience:
Our varying recollections will eraseevery familiar landmark … the red sky of Marrakesh will undergo so manymetamorphoses that we will consider ourselves fortunate in the end to have anysense of orientation left.
Hassan gathers his listeners every winterin Marrakesh’s famed Jemaa el Fna, where his reputation as a storyteller drawshim large crowds. At the heart of Hassan’s annual tale is the mysteriousappearance—and subsequent disappearance—of a young foreign couple, and the rolehis imprisoned brother Mustafa is believed to have played in their fate. Hassanreturns each year to try to make sense of these events of the past, and thenovel is most effective in the sections that unspool the shared history ofthese brothers. But time and time again—whether through Hassan or one of hisdesignated co-narrators who constantly interrupt his narratives with theircompeting versions of the “truth”—we are peppered with gnomicutterances intended to do truth’s heavy lifting. These shifts in perspectiveand mock profundities endlessly puncture the story’s momentum, and make JoydeepRoy-Bhattacharya’s second novel an enervating and maddening read.
To a certain extent, this rocky, twistingnarrative journey is probably intended. TheStoryteller of Marrakesh appears to be, at its heart, a meditation onstorytelling and its discontents, the unreliability of narrators, the fungiblenature of “truth.” But Roy-Bhattacharya solemnly flourishes obviouspoints and familiar tropes—perceptions are personal, trust the tale not theteller—as though they were revelations.
These are the sort of things that pass forwisdom in The Storyteller of Marrakesh:”Do we speak the truth, or do various, often incompatible versions of thetruth speak us?” Or “beauty … is akin to truth, and truth is energy,and energy is always in motion.” Or “For beauty, like faith, is foodfor the soul.” The first two don’t actually mean anything at all, and the third would be at home on a high-endgreeting card. The tone, perhaps seeking to evoke 1001 Nights, comes off as pastiche, bordering on the parodic, acartoon travelogue which feels—the author’s Indian birth and educationnotwithstanding—very much like a typical westerner’s ersatz view of Easternmysticism and inscrutability. The elaborately artificial mannerisms—Hassan isforever stroking his beard, pausing for effect—compare unfavorably with theArab streets as we’ve come to know them through the likes of Naguib Mahfouz,Tahar Ben Jelloun, Laila Lalami, and others.
The Storyteller of Marrakesh is billed asthe first of a trilogy of novels set in the Muslim world. Roy-Bhattacharya’sambitions and cross-cultural perspectives are to be admired, and his sense ofplace can be effective—the descriptions of the Jemaa and its surroundings areamong the book’s finest sections, as in this vision of the area’s multifariousreds. “Here the ochre expanse of the sky is mirrored in the tabia bricksand facades … Beyond, hues of cinnabar, rust, crimson, vermillion settle on thesnowcapped peaks of the High Atlas Mountains.” But in these parlous times,both Western readers and the Arab world deserve less portentous—and moreoriginal—interlocutors.