Many Voices, One Mystery

By Frances Khirallah Noble

The Storyteller of Marrakesh
By Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya
W.W. Norton & Co., 2011

Once upon a time, a beautiful French-American woman named Lucia and her Indian lover arrived in the city of Marrakesh. After capturing the attention of the locals, the young couple disappeared from Jemaa el Fina, the famous city square, never to be heard from again. Years later, the tale of the young couple and their sad predicament has become part of Marrakesh folklore and the mesmerizing Lucia has become a local legend, her awful fate inviting rescue or scorn. This is where “The Storyteller of Marrakesh” begins.

From his fire-lit circle in Jemaa el Fina, Hassan, a local storyteller, tells eager listeners the story of the mysterious disappearance of Lucia and her lover. However, as Hassan’s version conflicts with the collected memories of his listeners, the truth becomes increasingly elusive. Most listeners recount a red moon and a red lightning bolt, portent signs of danger, on the day of the disappearance, but the rest of the story is lost in a muddle of contradicting accounts. The story takes another confusing turn when the reader learns that Hassan’s brother, Mustafa, has confessed to causing the disappearances, thought most believe that he innocent and only willing to stays in prison because he is still in a trace induced by Lucia’s luminous beauty.

Throughout the course of the novel, the reader is introduced to fully developed characters, such as Hassan and his family members, as well as the fleeting speakers in the square who step forth to contribute to the tale then recede into the background, acting more as literary devices than individuals. This counterpoint maintains suspense, advances the plot, and creates multiple opportunities for introducing tableaus of a contemporary Islamic world little changed by modern thinking. All of these voices are set against the backdrop of the square, itself an essential character both timeless and ancient.

A poetic novel, “The Storyteller of Marrakesh” is about the nature and experience of truth and beauty and love. Roy-Bhattacharya’s writing is dense with imagery, transforming what could have been a mere mystery into a lyric experience. The continual plot detours may make some readers impatient, but the reader who “gives in” to the story will find satisfaction and pleasure. This book is timeless book, carrying on the tradition of “A Thousand and One Nights.”

As a reader, I wondered how the author came up with this truly unique story. I was startled by the apparent similarities between the author’s photo in the back of the book and his description of the young Indian lover inside the book. Furthermore, I wondered why the author chose to make a French-American woman the epitome of beauty and grace, rather than a local woman. I wondered whether or not the author had any personal connection to the story that he weaved so beautifully.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63, 2010.

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