Review Published in THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
(Leading writers cover the world of new books, ideas and performing arts)
A caravan of chance
THE SADDLEBAG. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani. 258pp. Bloomsbury. £14.99. 0 7475 4632 0.
The Saddlebag takes the reader deep into the swirling sands of Arabia. Half hidden in these sands are haunting images of loss and greed, beauty and violence. The stench of rotting flesh duels with ethereal perfumes. And cultures from Kashgar to Abyssinia, from Kirman to Calcutta wrestle with eternal questions. Only when the dust has settled does the reader begin to encompass the full intellectual and creative expanse of the novel and the multi-layered lives of its various protagonists.
A fragment in The Dawn Breakers, a chronicle of Bahai literature, tells of the theft of a saddlebag containing papers from a traveller on the road from Mecca to Medina in the middle of the nineteenth century. No one quite knows what the papers were and what happened to that saddlebag. Taking this fragment, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, in her first book, weaves a surreal fable, a tale of existence and redemption, of this world and the hereafter.
A slithery bedouin guide steals the saddlebag from a rich pilgrim. Seeking freedom from a gang of bandits whom he is forced to guide towards unsuspecting caravans in the desert, he throws himself from a cliff top," like a stroke of black ink against the blue expanse of the brilliant desert sky". The saddlebag, clutched in his arms, with its torn clasps and leather straps, contains bundles of different shapes and sizes, wrapped in silk and twine. Inside are messages written in flowing calligraphy on fine blue paper of rose-petal delicacy.
As the bandits descend on the passing caravan between the high cliffs of the Dafdaf mountains and the well of Abwa, with its ruined shrine, the saddlebag touches the lives of several characters. These are intriguing individuals, propelled helplessly to that burning space and time, their destinies meant to intertwine, to be changed for ever by the encounter with the saddlebag. There is the bandit chief, who abdicates and goes away to grow figs and apricots; the sleazy Indian money-changer, who finds the courage to return home; the demented Zoroastrian bride from Kirman, who believes that it is a message from an angel, and her loyal Falasha slave from Abyssinia who finds forgiveness at the moment of death. Add to that a young,
tormented Shia priest, torn by love under the desert moon and unsure of his calling, a shriveled Uigur pilgrim with one tooth in his mouth and eyes sharp as pins, an English adventurer disguised as a dervish, an indigo merchant in the shape of a corpse in the caravan, and one has all the makings of a fascinating book.
The novel's structure is ambitious; the tales of the different characters interweave seamlessly like circular logic; the different cultures, races and homelands find effortless links. Each tale adds to the complexity of the whole, and slowly the mosaic is completed. The narrative - there is hardly any dialogue - is gripping and taut. If it falters at all, it is in the tale of the dervish. Dervishes are compelling figures in themselves. The device of a British diplomat - a cross between Lawrence of Arabia and the players of the Great Game - disguised as a dervish, hair dyed black with antimony, blond roots showing, is farcical. The scenes at the British Embassy are jarring amid the timeless,
evocative descriptions of the desert, draining the tension and depleting the book. Fortunately, a metaphysical narration by the merchant's corpse revives the meditative mood and provides a fitting finale to the richly embroidered story "of delicate rottenness and subtle decay unwinding its bobbin from day to day".