366: A Novel of Love and Crime, Beautifully Told

Tunisian poet Inas Abassi reviews  Amir Tag Elsir’s 366, longlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

By Inas Abassi

366---Amir-Tag-ElsirI enjoyed reading the novel 366, in spite of the large amount of sorrow that colors its atmosphere.

The protagonist, or “deceased” as he calls himself, is a physics teacher who earns a meager salary who falls in love with a girl called Asmaa who he sees by coincidence at a wedding. He falls in love with her without talking to her, becoming acquainted with her, taking her phone number, or even knowing her full name and how to communicate with her. This staggering love confuses the protagonist and leads him to carry out a series of actions that he calls his follies. Is it not crazy: to resign from his job in order to search full-time for this beloved, no matter what sort of effect it was of seeing her once in his life?

This novel is a frantic search for Asmaa, a search written down by the protagonist in the form of letters in green ink as he keeps a diary describing his insomnia and longing for her. Through this story, the novelist Amir Tag Elsir gives details of the underworlds of Sudanese cities: the back streets, poverty, and the teaching profession that limits his horizons. The world of teaching which dries out the teacher and limits the imagination of the students by the boring, rote materials that are taught to them each year.

As usual, Amir Tag Elsir’s vision of the secret love story is excellent, adding a special tribunal for a mysterious crime that occurs parallel to the search for Asmaa. This crime finds our protagonist accused. In order not to reveal events for readers who haven’t finished reading the novel 366, I will not give additional details. It is worth noting that in spite of all this despair that plagues our lover, the story is not without its comic moments that bring smiles as we forget the wandering lover.

In addition to the basic and important point giving the novel its fundamental distinction, its style is interesting and draws the reader in. The language is such that it enables the smooth flow of the novel such that you are pulled so lightly over events that you will not stop reading until you discover the fate of this smitten lover!

Inas Abassi has published two prize-winning books of poetry, Secrets of the Wind (2004) and Archive of the Blind (2007), as well as Tales of the Korean Scheherezade. Abassi has published her poetry, writing and translations in newspapers, magazines and websites in Britain, Jordan, UAE and Lebanon. You can find her work in English translation in Banipal 39: Modern Tunisian Literature, trans. Allison Blecker.