Haji Jaber’s The Spindle Game (2015) takes the form of a series of transcripts of tape recordings, which, as the novel ends, are handed over to the secret police:
By Raphael Cohen
The narrative that unfolds through these transcripts tells of a nameless young Eritrean woman who starts working for the government department concerned with archiving the records of the Eritrean independence movement. In this semi-Orwellian world, we discover that history is being rewritten by the president himself. The young woman, inspired by her story-telling grandmother and the monotony of her life, takes it upon herself to further rewrite the memories of freedom fighters and the history of the Eritrean struggle for independence. Her mixed feelings for the president lead to the events that happen at the end.
Haji Jabir’s The Spindle Game is a novel that demands re-reading as soon as it is finished. The twist in its final pages makes the reader second-guess their initial interpretation, and underlines a major theme of the work: that stories and history are fluid, in constant motion, capable of being re-told and re-written.
The excerpt below comes from “Tapes 3 and 4”:
By Haji Jaber
Translated by Raphael Cohen
She headed early to the office. The section head greeted her with a broad smile and complimented her new hairstyle. She took the red documents from him and, even though her thoughts were busy with her brown documents, she made sure to appear enthusiastic.
Her desires had changed so fast, but there it was, she told herself.
She pretended to be engrossed in reading the documents, with the intention that her superior would notice. As she scanned the texts, she observed that some of the documents had many crossings out and alterations in a fine hand. That did not make her pause for long. Her mind was actively seeking comparisons between the two classes of document, red and brown. She felt pleased that her brown documents had begun to seem as exciting as the red ones.
She realized she was chomping on her pen and took it out of her mouth in embarrassment, checking to see if anyone had noticed.
She returned the batch to her superior with a show of gratitude and started typing up her altered story. She entered every word with a mixture of dread and excitement. She wasn’t content just to find an ending to the story, but changed its basic details and injected it with life.
The story’s protagonist, she thought, if he was given the choice between his life as it unfolded in the brown document and her version of it, he would incline towards this new life. Her thoughts took her far away, and she wondered which of the two lives was nearer the truth. What made the Archive Department’s documents history, given that her documents were closer to real life? In the end, wasn’t history life in the past?
That last idea stroked her ego, and she started looking through her new batch for a suitable document upon which to build an alternate story. It did not take her long to find a document that seemed appropriate:
A famous singer volunteered to perform concerts for Eritreans all over the world to raise money for weapons and other things the revolution needed. He worked for many years, and accordingly avoided combat, content to travel and sing. More than that, he continuously asked for an ever-greater share of the proceeds of his concerts. The leadership of the tanzim always agreed to his requests so that they did not lose an important source of revenue. They often made him promises of a senior post as soon as independence was achieved as a means to curb his greed and prevent him even thinking about betraying them and going it alone for his own personal gain.
As soon as liberation came, he returned and asked about the promised post. Since the tanzim only appointed highly qualified people, it was not possible to award him an important job. He was, after all, just a singer with nothing more than a good voice.
The singer was angry at what he deemed betrayal by the leadership, and he kept away from people. Some say he took his family and left the country. He had certainly amassed enough money during the years of the revolution to enjoy a comfortable life wherever he chose.
The young woman read the document several times in search of a way to start introducing her amendments. It would be hard for her to find the singer in Asmara, as the document did not provide his address. She could not even be sure whether he had stayed in the country or left for good. The difficulty of starting a story from scratch without leads to follow posed a problem and confused her. It occurred to her to turn to her grandmother for help again. That seemed a little disappointing, but there was no escaping it until she had more practice at storytelling.
“I hear that your performance is getting better and better. If you continue like this, you’ll get what you want very soon.” The department head interrupted her thoughts and, with a quick flustered movement, she took her pen out of her mouth. He had come into the office without her noticing. His compliment, she felt, was meant to reassure her after his harsh words the day before. It was obvious that he was afraid of losing her to his rival, the section head. She thought about ignoring his silly hint that she might move on to the red documents, but she did not want to rouse his suspicions. She made her face look grateful, and his hand reflexively twiddled his mustache. Then he left the room feeling pleased with himself.
Her superior had been watching the scene in annoyance, blinking nervously, and she turned to him. Her task seemed more difficult now that the two men appeared to be fighting over her. Victory for one would mean defeat for the other while, in all cases, she would be the loser.
She also relaxed a little when she realized that her changes to the document had passed unnoticed. Neither the director, who had left happily, nor the section head, who seemed more interested in her than in what she did, had noticed.
When she left work, the doctor was waiting for her. He was holding a bunch of flowers. She gave him a pale smile and tried to disguise her annoyance at the sight of him. She had not, she remembered, said no to his offer of meeting again. But that had been yesterday: today she did not want to see him. She only wanted to carry out her new mission.
Taking the bunch of flowers, she hailed a taxi. He seemed taken aback by her rudeness. “Don’t you want to hear what I recorded last night?” He was pleading more than asking. She got into the taxi and told him she wasn’t in the mood to hear anything. As the taxi sped away, it did not even occur to her to look over her shoulder. That’s how she wanted him: far enough away so that she could decide when she saw or listened to him.
The thought crossed her mind that when she had told him the day before that she quickly grew attached to people she might have made two mistakes. One, because she had no interest in becoming attached to anyone, and again because he was bound to think she was referring to him.
When the taxi arrived back at her house, she got out without the flowers, leaving them to depart with the driver without regret.
Grandmother was waiting for her. She was roasting coffee beans. The girl’s eyes were brimming with enthusiasm, and grandmother asked her whether there was a new story.
The girl finished telling her story as she had found it in the buff documents and waited for her grandmother to make some changes. This time, she was worried that grandmother would like the story as it was and find no justification to intervene. Then the girl would be unable to add anything to what existed in the Archive Department. Her worries were dispelled, however, when her grandmother suggested making a minor change:
“That singer wasn’t greedy for a post but driven by the desire to serve the revolution with the only thing he was good at. That made him stick to his work for many years. He often thought about giving up singing and heading to the battlefield, but in the end he was sure that what he was already doing was the best way he could serve the revolution.
“With independence, he returned to the country and realized his mission had been completed to perfection. He did not bother much about the jostling of his comrades over government posts. He preferred to keep away from all the commotion, but he absolutely would not tolerate any deviation from the aims of the revolution. This made his friends incite against him more than his enemies. He faced many threats of imprisonment or death. He feared for his children and decided to leave the country for Sudan, and he settled in Kassala, where he had bought a house from the savings he had amassed during the struggle.”
It was no minor change that grandmother had made to the story. It was enough to turn what happened upside down. Even so, she made another suggestion: “What do you think about us making another change?” Grandmother seemed to be showing off her skills; opening more windows to a cramped room and turning it into an open space. The girl merely gave a nod, but her chest brimmed with enthusiasm.
“The singer did not belong to any Eritrean tanzim. The revolution was his compass. As a result, he took no more than his expenses for his concerts around the world. And because the revolution was his lodestar, even after independence, he was absolutely unwilling to betray it. When the anger towards him grew, and he realized he would be sent to prison, he said goodbye to his small family and sat in wait for his jailers, who were not long coming. His wife was worried for their children after her husband’s imprisonment, and she decided to flee to Kassala in Sudan. There she worked humble jobs to support her children, whose father had left them nothing to live off. During his search for independence he had not saved any money for himself.”
The girl was captivated by what she had heard: many versions of the same story. She felt she had actually lived the events. She pondered the different possibilities. There was still something missing, something that concerned her, that sprung from her. She only came back to herself when she was asking her grandmother to let her try her hand at making a slight change to the story. The grandmother agreed wholeheartedly.
“The singer disappeared from view and everyone believed he was in prison, swallowed up by the revolution he had struggled for. People felt sad at his fate and that of his family, who were living in poverty in exile. He alone knew that he had mapped out a different path. The regime used him to snare its enemies: they planted him in a communal cell with members of a rival tanzim. He exploited his unfair treatment, which was known to all, to learn the intentions of the prisoners and pass the information on to the regime. In return, the regime provided him with a luxurious room, where he went whenever he was punished with solitary confinement. The charade was no great upheaval for the singer. His whole artistic career, he had spied on the tanzim’s opponents, taking advantage of the general belief that he did not belong to a particular faction.”
Grandmother could not believe what she was hearing. Her delight exceeded that of her granddaughter at the praise she received. She told her that now she had taken her first major steps toward becoming a skilled storyteller. For the second time, she had created her own story and demonstrated her talent. The girl felt proud when grandmother told her that she would soon best her. This time her happiness was real, unlike the time before, when she had falsely claimed that the story was hers.
Grandmother realized that, on both occasions, the girl had captured what her stories were missing: life always turned its back on good people, while she always tried to bring them to the forefront, but without success. Now here was the girl, who at her first attempt was aware of that and injected evil into her story, bringing it closer to real life.
The girl picked up the ivory spindle. She ran her fingers over it and felt she was closer to understanding its great mystery. It seemed to her that a river of stories was hidden somewhere nearby, right beneath her skin, awaiting the moment to burst forth in a cascade of light.
The girl became very adroit at what she was doing.
She tampered with the brown documents without much care, while her grandmother intervened less and less to change her stories and was mostly content just to listen. The girl made her amendments at the office without arousing anyone’s suspicions. Then she would take them back fresh to her grandmother. She was proud of her growing ability, her talent for taking the story apart and reassembling it in her own way. She demonized the good and set the cruel back on the right track. She played with fates and destinies, with ages, feelings, and motives. Manipulation became her favorite pastime. She felt her characters were grateful to her: she was helping them to grow, to complete their incomplete lives in the most delectable way. Given the section head’s desire to win her affections, she was certain that he did not review her documents, and that encouraged her.
The only thing spoiling her life was the doctor’s pursuit of her. She rebuffed him more and more harshly without the slightest twinge of conscience. She hated the way he clung to her, his unrelenting persistence. She regretted having given him the first chance – it was like he had gone down a one-way street and could not turn back. She regretted more that she had not heeded the warning in his story about his love for all the women around him. Her last hope was that his feelings would soon change.
The sense of excitement generated by creating stories was tinged with a fear that it would become mundane, her constant worry. She was anxious that even her source of delight would get boring. So she tried not to spend too long with any particular way of narrating.
She noticed that she usually searched her documents for unfinished stories, for missing endings. That itself might, over time, cause the routine she sought to avoid.
It occurred to her to experiment with complete stories, with fates laid down in detail. She thought that in its truth, completion stored the flaws of lack. She had a great desire to twist straight lines, those starting points and endings everyone knew, to throw a large stone into familiar, predictable waters. Nothing caused boredom, she thought, more than finished stories. The truth of life was a journey closer to lack than completion. A life would not be able to seduce anyone if it came completed, with no room for a new move.
She put aside documents that had attracted her before the last idea occurred to her, and started looking for an ordinary story. She picked up a document that she felt might meet her objective. She read closely and decided she would ignore it as soon as she felt the slightest excitement. She continued reading. The dullness started to annoy her, but that was what she wanted. She realized she had found what she was looking for: a complete story. The document told the story of a nurse in his sixties from a village on the outskirts of the capital.
The state recognized the nurse for his great efforts during the war of independence. He had accompanied the fighters, treated their injuries, and cared for them. In the absence of doctors, he had become the doctor. He gained renown for having saved dozens of children who had eaten poisoned sweets that enemy agents left lying in the villages and which had killed many. He was the first to discover the cause of the growing rate of child mortality. Then he spent months roaming the villages to warn people and treat children.
Shortly after independence, he returned to his village and turned his humble home into a clinic that soon became the destination of the sick from his and neighboring villages. Everyone praised and respected him, even after he grew old and became less active.
His only son was about to fulfil his father’s dream and graduate as a doctor from Asmara University. His wife was a village woman whose only ambition was to care for her family. Over time, she had gained some of his skill and became his faithful nurse. All of that made him live a comfortable life. The final honor, crowning his long life, gave him a suitable ending. When he died, the whole village came out for his funeral, which was attended by senior officials. The president subsequently awarded him the State Medal First Class, posthumously.
The girl’s eyes shone as she hit upon what she wanted to do to the story of the good nurse. She turned to her colleagues; they were absorbed in their work. She took a deep breath and began typing with eager hands:
He never thought that that quiet day would change his life for ever. On his way back from the battlefield to visit his family, he spotted a girl picking prickly pears and putting them in a basket. She paid him no attention, and that allowed him to study her captivating face. He seemed entranced by her beauty as he approached her. He felt himself sink into her curves as she bent and straightened to grasp an awkwardly placed fruit. Momentarily, he forgot his wife and little child. He forgot the battlefield awaiting his return. All he thought about was the girl who had stung his soul at first sight.
Finally, she became aware of his presence. She was not awkward but gave an alluring smile that sent a delicious shiver through him. He introduced himself and immediately suggested they get married. The girl gave a shameless laugh that made his mouth water. He drew closer until almost touching her. She leaned away with an expression of childish anger on her face. ‘But I’m married.”
The man quickly overcame his shock. His only thought was how to possess the girl. “Where is your husband? I’ll convince him to divorce you.”
She laughed again as she looked at the rifle he showed her. “Should I let my husband be killed for the sake of a guy who wants me for a little while then dumps me?”
Aroused by her boldness, he almost leaped on her. He told her that he wanted her for ever. He would be a slave at her feet his whole life. He would divorce his wife and give up the company of soldiers to be with her.
“Okay, you don’t need to kill my husband. He hasn’t come yet. And you don’t have to divorce your wife. What do you say we give each other a try first?”
He couldn’t believe his ears. Her boldness made his heart quake. He tried to embrace her, but she rebuffed him again. “Not now! Come in the evening. I’ll be waiting for you at that house, and I’ll be alone.”
The girl left, having imprinted herself in his heart. He stood there lost in thought and decided to wait for the evening, to wait for the flower that opened in the noon heat from a prickly pear.
He did not leave the place and spent the afternoon counting time until evening finally came. Waiting behind the half-open door, she seemed even more desirable.
Doors, how cruel and tyrannical they are, controlling the space between obtaining one’s desire or its denial. The door was, like her, a flirt, giving him half an invitation and half a refusal.
They went inside together and she closed the door behind them. The back of the door, how much more delectable; how sweet its solid appearance.
He spent the whole night in her arms. He had tasted a different woman, when he had believed they were all the same. Now he was sure that when a woman took control in bed, a man would realize how different they were.
At daybreak, she asked him to leave. He begged to stay. Whether he was silent or talked, whether he cried or laughed, what mattered was to remain with her.
Her mind was made up: “Come in the evening. I’ll listen to you then.”
He did not need to wait for the evening. He could tell her right then. Happiness is not controlled by time; it makes times and space. But she asked him again to leave, this time more insistently.
He went home in confusion. His wife was waiting for him in all her splendor, but he had never found her more hideous than now. He was certain that women differed. He went into the bedroom and pretended to sleep as he waited for evening.
The wife swallowed her disappointment and lay down next to him. She also waited for the evening, but in the hope that he would be refreshed and turn to her.
She did not sleep as she waited for him, and he did not sleep as he waited for the girl. When evening came, he dressed and hurried out. His wife ran after him until the door came between them.
He thought about doors again. About the vast difference between the door of his house and her door. Doors only have importance when we are in front of them or run to them. Otherwise they are cold and lost in oblivion.
The man spent days of pleasure with the girl, then she asked him to leave again. This time, she told him not to return for a month. The man went crazy. He begged her to change her mind, to at least shorten the period of time. She said no firmly. He threatened her and put a knife to her throat. When he saw her determination, he wept at her feet, then left humiliated and broken.
For a month, he kept away from her without keeping away. He spent all the time watching her from a distance, filling his eyes with her. He kept guard over her with his heart and feelings now that she had settled in them. When the month was over, he was prostrate at her feet again.
“If you want to be with me, we have to work together.”
He paid little attention to her firm tone and ignored her serious expression. He acquiesced even before she had finished speaking.
She told him that she wandered among the villages by night, dropping poisoned sweets in the streets. She asked him to help her. He would be well paid, and she would be generous with her nights.
Her words awakened him from his intoxication. He wanted to rebel, to strike her or kill her with his bare hands, but something stronger paralyzed him and forced him to bow his head.
She leaned towards him until her breasts were against his chest. She repeated her offer in a hissed voice.
He was lost. He thought about his vocation, the struggle, the cause he lived for. He thought about the children he would poison, about his own child meeting that fate.
But he was still incapable of anger.
He recalled his contempt for the agents bought cheaply by the enemy. He imagined himself as one of them. He felt ashamed, as if dirty from head to toe.
But he was still incapable of anger.
“We won’t start tonight. I’m devoting it to you. I’m going to make you forget the past nights.”
She did not wait for his response. She headed to her house and left the door half-open. He cursed doors and how they played with his fate. Still at the door, he thought about turning around and ending it all. But her door was different. He was certain that doors were like women. When things were in their hands, we knew how different they were from each other.
The half-open door almost set him ablaze. He went in, slamming it behind him. He felt relaxed having left the door cold behind him. With it, he left behind all his misgivings.
The girl could have cried with joy at seeing the document ablaze with life. She felt that she loved the manipulative girl, that she was like her, or at least belonged to her age. She remembered her grandmother had once told her that all storytellers dish out themselves in some fashion. She was full of gratitude to her girl, who was complicit with her in making the document more thrilling. She wished the ivory spindle was at hand. She would have worked it with the skill of an expert.
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Haji Jabir is an Eritrean novelist, born in the coastal city of Massawa in 1976. He has published five novels: Samrawit (2012), winner of the Sharjah Award for Arab Creativity in 2012; Fatma’s Harbour (2013); The Spindle Game (2015), which was longlisted for the 2016 Sheikh Zayed Book Award; and Black Foam (2018), which won the Katara Novel Prize in 2019 and was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction; and The Abyssinian Rimbaud (2021). He currently lives in Doha, Qatar.
Raphael Cohen is a professional translator and lexicographer who studied Arabic and Hebrew at Oxford and the University of Chicago. His published translations include the novels Guard of the Dead by George Yarak, Butterfly Wings by Mohammed Salmawi, Status Emo by Islam Musbeh, The Bridges of Constantine by Ahlem Mostaghenemi, and So You May See by Mona Prince. He has also contributed translations of short stories and poetry to a range of anthologies and magazines, and translates books and articles in the humanities and social sciences. He is based in Cairo.