So begins The Storyteller of Marrakesh. This literary mystery is narrated by Hassan, who belongs to a family of traditional storytellers. He has set up his kilim (blanket) in the Jemma el Fna and is preparing to tell a story
…the like of which I promise you have never heard before. It is a love story, like all the best stories, but it is also a mystery, for it concerns the disappearance of one of the lovers or the other or perhaps both of them or neither.
And so Hassan begins weaving his tale, one which he feels compelled to retell once a year. The story revolves around Lucia, a half American half French woman and her Indian lover. It revolves around his brother Mustafa, who fell in love with Lucia, and then, a week after the disappearance of the tourists, turned himself in to the police in connection with their disappearance. It revolves around the day those tourists spent at the Jemma and around all of those who came in contact with them. It revolves around her beauty and the passions that it ignited in all the men who had the fortune, or misfortune, to meet her that day.
There is a story within a story within a story, with all the listeners present invited to come forward and talk about their meeting with the foreigners that day. Through the collective memories of all who are gathered around Hassan, and all of whom were at the Jemma on that day, emerges a narrative of the various sightings of this mysterious couple. There are premonitions, superstitions, and men driven mad with desire for the girl. Through the stories, you get a glimpse of the Jemma, of the heady world of Marrakesh and an insight into traditional Islamic culture.
The many narratives weave together into an intricate mosaic, at the end of which you aren’t sure of Hassan’s role in the entire affair. Is his compulsion to repeat this story every year simply his effort to exonerate his brother, Mustafa, from the crime? Or is Hassan himself involved in the mystery?
In the true tradition of oral storytelling, there are as many questions as there are answers. As many loose ends as tied.
One thing is for sure, Bhattacharya has a way with words. Although all of the action takes place around Hassan at the Jemma, and the entire novel is set during one evening of storytelling, you’ll be immersed in the sights and sounds of the “most storied city square in the word,” travel the Sahara, and hear the dolphins play in the ocean.
This is the first in a planned trilogy set in the Islamic world. I only hope that the rest of the novels don’t take this story forward. For though some things may be left open to interpretation, I think a trilogy would spoil the mystery of this novel and go against the form of storytelling Bhattacharya has employed here.
Overall, this is an interesting book that I found really hard to put down (and that, in part, made me determined to take the reading deprivation challenge). Highly recommended.