Memories and Mysteries of a Night On the Jemaa

Review of The Storyteller of Marrakesh; Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya; W.W. Norton 2012; pp 341

– Shana Susan Ninan

Hassan may be the central character of The Storyteller of Marrakesh by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, but the square where Hassan sits and narrates stories occupies a big space in the book. Almost the core of the story. Orality of traditional cultures is the basis for Roy’s book. Born in Jamshedpur in India, Roy’s debut novel, The Gabriel Club was published in eight languages in 16 countries. He has spent time researching the life in Morocco and its fruits are seen in the plot of the story.

The narration is well-woven – reading the book, I felt, at times, that I was sitting on the marble floors of the Jemaa (square/ plaza), on the starry night, listening to the tales told by each member of the circle. The tales waft into your senses as soft as an evening breeze, caressing your thoughts and awakening your dreams. Roy writes with such flair that when we explains something or describes a place, the reader can visualise it superbly well in the mind’s eye.

An extract explaining the Jemaa:

During the daytime, the Jemaa is a cross between a festive ground, a meeting place, and a marketplace. In the past, any articles that could not be sold in the souks were traded here in the morning…. In the afternoon, the entertainers arrive. Sluggish snakes and sad-faced monkeys strive to hold the attention of a fickle crowd….

After sundown, the square alters character. Musicians, acrobats, trapeze artists, faith healers, water sellers, henna artist, juice vendor, snake charmers, belly dancers glass eaters, lantern carriers, storytellers – all assume the quality of apparitions that are both dramatic and ageless.

…one does not seek the truth from the Jemaa but one’s own nourishment. …in the not-so-distant desert the wind roars. It roars on the Atlas mountaintops and sweeps across the rocky islands off the Atlantic coast. But the Jemaa el Fna, even the wind surrenders to the drums in the night.

Hassan is the second of the three sons in his family. His background, life and emotions are well crafted into the primary plot of the story. So well that you sometimes wonder where you have to stop and separate the two. Hassan’s choice of following in his father’s footsteps as a storyteller has bearing on the future events in his life. Mustafa, Hassan’s young brother – reckless and lustful – is a suspect in the case, and Hassan explores the possibility of his brother’s involvement. The truth is analysed by each, at the square – the story of the two foreigners always remains hot topic for story subjects at the Jemaa. In the square, imagination is king, and no one draws from it more than Hassan does.

Although he begins the story of the two foreigners lost in Marrakesh, most of his listeners contribute in interlacing their versions into the main plot. The hotel owner, the storyteller, the bodybuilder, the merchant, the cook, the guide, the shopkeeper… all have seen or heard about the couple and offer their humble explanations as to their disappearance. The woman’s facial features, the guy’s gait and demeanour, their visits around the city, all these and more are debated, as the speakers explain, one by one.

The best part of the conversations is that the quotes and sentences are merely attributed to the speaker. There are no quotation marks to mar the flow of words. This is also representative of the storytelling tradition – smooth flow from one concept/ story to another.

The glossary at the end of the book is very helpful. Readers also get to sample an interview the author gave to Reading Group Guide.

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Rating: 9.0/10 (2 votes cast)
Memories and Mysteries of a Night On the Jemaa, 9.0 out of 10 based on 2 ratings

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This entry was posted on Thursday, May 3rd, 2012 at 11:31 am and is filed under Fiction, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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