Hearts of darkness: Ibrahim al-Koni’s The Puppet

"Don’t imagine that people obey a ruler merely because he’s wise…"

Some novelist's strength lies in plot, relying on multi-layered narratives and elaborate series of captivating events to draw the reader in. Others tend to focus on character, emphasizing human aspects of the story and presenting the reader with fascinating individuals they can relate to. For some writers, though, both plot and character are tools to be employed in pursuit of a larger purpose than mere literary entertainment. The Puppet, Libyan writer Ibrahim al-Koni's most recent novella, falls into that third category.The Puppet  (AUC Press, 2010) is a traditional tale with simple characters, a parable that tells a deeper story of corruption tied to the pursuit of civilization.

Forty years after abandoning their nomadic way of life, a tribe of Tuareg noblemen, warriors and sages come to the realization that they must replace their “desert rules” with a system more suitable to their new existence in a flourishing oasis—especially as ancient wisdom dictates that no tribe stay put for more than 40 days for fear of becoming the location’s prisoner. As the town of Waw continues to grow around the oasis, al-Koni, through his cast of vaguely defined characters, muses on how a life within walls differs from nomadic wanderings through endless desert and, more importantly, how that life demands a change in priorities and, ultimately, purpose.

With the old edicts of the elders gradually forsaken, the residents of Waw feel the need to elect a leader, one who is “of flesh and blood and walks on two legs,” as opposed to the long-deceased members of the Spirit World previously looked to for guidance through signs and omens. As one character explains, “A change of place brings a change in the times. Only the wasteland’s people need the voice of the Spirit World. Worldly people want nothing from their world but worldly puppets.”

Even though on some levels The Puppet is, as the title suggests, a tale of political manipulation, the concepts of a powerless figurehead, symbolic leaders, and unseen orchestrators extends far beyond the realm of politics. Al-Koni’s apparent intention is to examine the evils plaguing civilized society and infecting the hearts of modern man. A leader is chosen by the people of Waw, but his noble intentions wither in the face of his subjects’ ambition and greed. Settling down has made the former nomads corruptible, a disease made all the more contagious by the appearance of gold in the oasis marketplace.

The Puppet is an excellent novella, but clearly suffers from some awkward translating. The occasional modern expression or word jars from the author’s style and the rest of the prose and several of al-Koni’s entendres are apparently missed. For example, at one point a character interprets a look from a snake as saying, “Have you forgotten that I don’t die? Have you forgotten that I’m called The Snake?” The translator does not make the point that the Arabic words for "snake" and "alive" are homonyms.

Born and raised in a Tuareg community, al-Koni spent his formative years wandering the Libyan deserts with his tribe. His writing is not only highly-knowledgeable of nomadic life, but of the desert as well, a setting which is given more attention than his human creations. Al-Koni brilliantly combines the harshness and mysticism of the landscape to create an unnerving setting worthy of his brutal parable. This is a world in which spirits dwell in every shadow, where twilight is celebrated by the ethereal chirping of invisible birds, and where human faces are perpetually obscured by veils—protection from the desert’s unrelenting cruelty.

Names are seldom mentioned and little information is given about the characters, but that disregard for what are, in this context, smaller details, only adds to the dream-like procession of events. Individuals are not the main concern here—all are flawed, and all will expire only to be embodied by future generations. Instead, al-Koni focuses on the sand and the blood, the spirit and the heart—anything else is inconsequential and has no place in al-Koni's unforgiving wasteland. The Puppet  is a unique and quietly unsettling work, light on surprises but genuine in its wisdom.

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