The OF Blog: G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen

Reza carefully laid out the pages he had transcribed during the creature's last visit.  He wrote in Arabic, not Persian, hoping that this precaution would prevent his work from being misused should it fall into the hands of the uneducated and uninitiated.  The manuscript was thus a double translation:  first into Persian from the voiceless language in which the creature spoke, which fell on Reza's ears like the night echoes of childhood, when sleep was preceded by that solitary, fearful journey between waking and dreaming.  Then from Persian into Arabic, the language of Reza's education, as mathematical and efficient as the creature's speech was diffuse.

The result was perplexing.  The stories were there, rendered as well as Reza could manage, but something had been lost.  When the creature spoke, Reza would drift into a kind of trance, watching strange shapes amplify themselves again and again, until they resembled mountains, coastlines, the pattern of frost on glass.  In these moments he felt sure he had accomplished his desire, and the sum of knowledge was within his reach.  But as soon as the stories were fixed on paper, they shifted.  It was as if the characters themselves – the princess, the nurse, the bird king, and all the rest – had grown sly and slipped past Reza as he attempted to render them in human proportions. (p. 4)
ا. Aleph.  Alif.  The letter that is not, the marker of short vowels that are unseen.  The beginning of semantics, of our language for the world around us.  There is a sort of mysticism about this Semitic vowel marker, both in its Hebrew and Arabic scripts.  Borges entitled one of his most famous collections (and stories), El Aleph, as a sort of reference to the occult knowledge some over the centuries have attributed to it.  Its symbolism persists even into today as a metaphor for that which is present and yet not.  It is therefore fitting that ا is the pseudonym for the protagonist of G. Willow's Alif the Unseen.

Alif is a young Arab-Indian hacker operating in an unnamed Persian Gulf city.  He runs a clandestine business that allows his clients to bypass the stringent internet security system established by the local government, but after a lover of his leaves him for the "Hand of God," the head of the state's internet security apparatus, his career and possibly his life are in danger.  Fleeing underground, Alif stumbles upon a copy of The Thousand and One Days, a book created by the jinn that is the "true original" of the human-translated The Arabian Nights and which apparently contains an encoding of data that could unlock more than a very sophisticated information technology.

Alif the Unseen can be read on multiple levels.  At the base is a technological thriller, as Alif and the "Hand of God" compete to possess the secret book and to decode it.  The action certainly is quick and the revelations that spur developments move at a brisk pace, with very few lulls in the action.  However, Alif the Unseen is also a commentary on faith and the belief systems in which we have encoded our own fears, superstitions, hopes, and desires.  Wilson draws upon nearly 1400 years of Muslim theology and philosophy in the dialogues that Alif has with the jinn and others.  Yet these references are, for the most part, not oblique to non-Muslims, as they contain references that people of other faiths (or non-faiths) can understand, such as referencing the piety of the suffering:

Alif heard the sheikh chuckle.

"I have had much experience with the unclean and uncivilized in the recent past.  Shall I tell you what I discovered?  I am not the state of my feet.  I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts.  If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray at any time since my arrest.  But I did pray, because I am not these things.  In the end, I am not even myself.  I am a string of bones speaking the word God." (p. 294)

This little passage finds resonance in other scenes in the novel, including the plight of the state's citizens, their attempts to find that precarious balance between the exigencies of life and of their faith in something greater than their oppressed state, and in the belief that the world contains things beyond human ken.  Wilson references these beliefs and the seemingly contradictory ways in which people may act on them (e.g.  the conflict between the emphasis on peace and the often-violent means of protest that the subjugated people employ to voice their dissent).  Too easily such socio-religious commentaries could be construed as being mawkish or cynical, yet with few exceptions Wilson manages to avoid both.  Her characters are not cartoons; they contain their own frailties and rocks of strength upon which they sustain themselves.

The prose is deceptively simple.  It is relatively sparse, focusing more on developing the action than on the situations, although at key moments, there are revelatory passages that further the plot without bogging down the action.  The characterizations are understated yet rarely is there the sense that any of them are underdeveloped.  Alif in particular is a mixture of knowledge and ignorance whose quest to decode the jinn's book works because we see his progression without feeling that he is a Dan Brown-like simpleton who has to explain every single point in laborious detail as if everything were truly a divine revelation.

If there were a flaw to Alif the Unseen, it might be that Wilson could have explored the underpinnings of Alif's society and their belief system just a bit more.  However, this is more a matter of personal preference, a desire to see the semantics of the meta-narrative outlined more, rather than a grievous fault.  Outside of this and a few quibbles about how quickly the novel ended, Alif the Unseen was one of the better 2012 releases that I have read this year.  Its mixture of Arabic mythology, cultural traditions, contemporary social concerns, with some elements of technological SF works very well and should appeal to a wide range of readers.


Kathleen said...

intriguing! great review - thank you.

Larry Nolen said...

You're welcome :D

Eric M. Edwards said...

While I get on with your opinions, I found my experience less satisfying. Every reader is different, so think of this as a parallel viewpoint.

While having high hopes, I was let down by what I felt was not a terribly well written book and with flaws lurking at its centre.

Outwardly appearing to grapple with interesting subject matter such as Islam, technology, and the recent/ongoing political unrest being experienced in the Arab world - very little actual engagement results in my opinion. Another person on Twitter commented on it being a "flinchybook... All about the middle east, except it's not." The interesting elements I felt, while bravely introduced, were too quickly swept aside by the thriller-adventure-cum-adolescent page turner that takes over.

The result is a standard adventure story - with the author giving up on the intriguing premise of storytelling as a multi-layered narrative device when the thriller elements take over. A shame, because like the promise of engagement with Arab politics, we never see this one brought to term either.

I found myself cringing at the contrivances (integral elements of the novel's 'hacking' are best not mentioned at all other than to invoke Clarke's third law in an ironical sense), at the proselytizing cod-philosophical discussions that often when picked apart, were empty of meaning (one sure sign is the game of Philosophical Name Dropping without much discussion of the texts/authors thus invoked). Beyond this I found the unbalancing presence of the 'convert' detracted from my enjoyment of the story and its setting. The author has stated this novel is more autobiographical than her autobiographical work, the Butterfly Mosque, and I felt this element distracted from the story she's trying to tell alongside it.

There is the presence of a Western gaze that isn't always clear in its perspective perhaps because of this second, invisible omphalos. We can feel it seeping into the text from the convert's "autobiographical" viewpoint but despite much of the novel being about the convert, the locus of the story is outwardly with the non-western characters: Alif, the djinn, his two love interests, the loquacious avuncular sheikh, and his other allies/enemies. So there is Western apologetics/exotification that creeps into the text, placed into the mouths of non-Western characters. This made me uncomfortable. I think, due to having 'native' main characters endorsing these viewpoints, it is harder to trace back/detect the source of Western bias. Readers who are not well informed may take these as authentic voices - rather than that of a character who is intended as a mild satire of the author. Though on that point, any self satire is indeed soft, hardly recoginizlable by the standards of writers such as Voltaire.

Beyond this, I found the main character to be of a type - teenage hero who we're told is a genius but is carried along more by the aegis of his stupidity (like a Middle Eastern Harry Potter) - that I'm not fond of, so my reaction may be personal.

The villain's a boo-hiss caricature, whose supposed high intelligence seems lacking from the actual story. I was left wondering if the book was intended to be YA. Where you praise clear prose I see a simplicity that hides a more problematic emptiness, stock character types with few noteworthy exceptions - and a wasteland made from promising material.

It's a quick read, but I was relieved when it was done and I was able to pick up something else to exorcise it. In this case, it happened to be Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare - which while full of Western fascination with the Near East, narratives and storytelling techniques nestled inside other narratives, performs its tricks with a more adroit hand (and a knowing wink), and contains bags of better writing and more imagination.

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