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Review of Benyamin’s ‘Al Arabian Novel Factory’

Tyranny breeds fear and despair. It can be a blatant or a secret celebration of violence. In Benyamin’s Al Arabian Novel Factory, it assumes a simmering intensity as the author breaks apart the illusion of pluralism, piece by piece, part by part. No matter how the world perceives it or the media spins it, he documents the angry dance of despotism — the baiting and detention, trials and torture chambers, mass disappearances and casual executions. And as the atmosphere sinks in, you can’t escape that suffocating sense of foreboding, that sudden flash of fear, as you recognise its uncanny resemblance to post-CAA India.

City blights

Al Arabian Novel Factory unravels in a nameless Arab country referred to as the City, a land where an authoritarian regime is using brute force to subdue the sparks of Arab Spring. The story is narrated through the POV of Pratap, a Keralite-turned-Canadian-citizen working with Toronto Sunday. James Hogan, his editor, offers him “an amazing opportunity to break new ground” by researching the geography and sociology of 17 West Asian countries from Egypt to Iran. He learns that an acclaimed author, who prefers to stay anonymous, has outsourced the work of assembling raw material for his latest novel. He soon joins a team of researchers who all land in the City to explore its soul.

Every team member has his own reason to choose the city, Pratap’s being Jasmine, his long-lost love. While Londoner Edwin is enticed by the legends of the Mesopotamian desert, Vinod Chopra, an Islamophobic Indian journalist, is there following Priyanka, “a woman who carries a storm of lust inside her”. Riyaz Malik, a Pakistani scribe and the fourth member of the team, has an air of secrecy. The narrative evolves through their pursuits as they wander the galis dotted with mosques and minarets in search of real and private testimonials. And at the heart of the plot is a mysterious book penned by a Pakistani radio jockey, connecting Al Arabian Novel Factory to its prequel, Jasmine Days.

Enveloping fear

The author shows how unrest spreads like wildfire in a state through an arsenal of brutal tactics. The Sultan and

The kingdom of salt and silence: Review of Benyamin’s ‘Al Arabian Novel Factory’

his secret state police are busy silencing the dissidents and eroding civil freedom. Usual targets include activists, journalists and officials who have fallen out of favour, along with the second-class citizens of Shia Muslims. “Fear has enveloped the city like morning fog,” Pratap observes. It’s a kingdom where all democratic indicators are reduced to random tropes and the chance to engage in free discourse is zilch. The monarch commands an army of plainclothes policemen and CID officers: at one point Edwin wonders if there is anyone in the City who is not a double agent or spy.

The City also has a horde of loyal Malayali migrant who sing paeans to His Majesty, conveniently ignoring the dark backstage drama. For them the protesters are just a bunch of rowdies and religious fanatics.

Wave of unease

Then you are introduced to the Arab version of cartoons that depict Tom as an impoverished local and Jerry as an invading foreigner. Tom accuses Jerry of trying to snatch his ancestral land and solemnly swears to protect what belongs to his forefathers. The City is also home to bar dancers and suicide squads, a place where Pratap meets men who smell like salt and sadness. It has human bombs who wrap their penises in protective gear for the 72 beautiful virgins waiting in heaven.

Faisal, a 24-year-old driver belonging to the Shia faction, has several wounds that refuse to heal. He is beaten up with a cane and electric baton and then his tormentors pour acid over his wounds to keep them infected. His crime is that he wanted a passport. “Am I not a human being?” he asks.

Jasmine is an elusive presence in the novel though Benyamin tries to navigate the nuances of man-woman relationship through her and another couple. Perumal is threatened by Pratap’s sudden proximity to his wife, but he blames social media for it, insisting that Facebook mirrors one’s heart. He says social networking sites are like “devils whispering in women’s ears that there is a universe of happiness waiting for them beyond their husband.”

The novel, translated from the Malayalam by Shanaz Habib, has no chapters but nine sections with brief pieces thrown together. At some points the narrative meanders into the labyrinth of philosophy and political discourse, but easily springs back from the docu-fiction mode to a more engrossing tempo of storytelling. Benyamin is not an author who indulges in purple prose, nor has he ever attempted idiom-dripping poetry. It’s often some thematic quirk that defines his work and Al Arabian Novel Factory is no exception. But unlike Goat Days, which offered a slow-burning catharsis, this one explodes into a wave of unease as the din in the City reminds you of crowds chanting azadi. But above all, Al Arabian Novel Factoryshows how obscene silence can be in times of strife and resistance.

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Al Arabian Novel Factory; Benyamin, trs Shanaz Habib, Juggernaut, ₹599

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