‘A Giant Multi-room Museum Piece’: Ibrahim al-Koni’s ‘The Fetishists’

I’m not tremendously keen on The Fetishists as a title for Ibrahim al-Koni’s epic al-Majus, finally out in translation by William Hutchins:

You can read an excerpt of Hutchins’ translation on The Brooklyn Rail; and another excerpt, “The Teacher,” translated by Elliott Colla.

From a review in Qantara:

In the 1970s, [Ibrahim al-Koni] moved to Soviet Russia to study comparative literature and thatʹs where he grappled with theories of the novel, particularly those of Marxist literary critic Gyorgy Lukacs. Al-Koni worked in Russia and Poland, lived two very productive decades in Switzerland and finally moved to Spain, where he lives today.

But wherever al-Koni has been, physically, his novels have taken readers to Libyaʹs Red Hamada desert. This is primarily a “desert of the mind”– or at least thatʹs what al-Koni says in interviews – yet the intensely realised details set readers in the face of a hot qibli wind, which feeds us “three handfuls of sand a day”.

This wind might blow sand into “unblemished folds” outside a tent as it “spread out new tongues of sand and eliminated old ones[.]” Al-Koni is also a master of describing the gait of a human body when buffeted by harsh desert winds.

Yet al-Koni is not interested solely in the desertʹs people. In The Fetishists, as in all his work, the desertʹs animals and plants are deeply sentient beings.

The book approaches the desires of plants as sympathetically as those of humans, as when the acacia trees wait “patiently and dejectedly” until, “a breeze blew from the north, and they captured it with their crests, sucking up moisture and deriving life from it.”

This is not mere anthropomorphism. Instead, the human is de-centred to be a part of the desert landscape, not its focus.

Keep reading the review.

More translations of al-Koni by Colla:

“In ‘Tongue,’ a harrowing short story from al-Koni’s story collection Kharif al-darwish (Autumn of the Dervish), men are forced to confront the burden of unwanted speech.

“‘The Cloak‘ is an excerpt from al-Koni’s 2012 novel, al-Waram (The Tumor), an allegory of the Qaddafi dictatorship.”

From Hutchins:

The Sacrifice (from The Scarecrow)

“The Right Course,” an excerpt from the novel Al-Bahth An al-Makan al-Da’i` (In Search of the Lost Place), in English translation as The Seven Veils of Seth