Author:
• Friday, June 25th, 2021

Jokha Alharthi, born in Oman in 1978, is one of eight sisters and four brothers. She is a writer and academic. She was first educated in Oman before receiving a doctorate in classical Arabic poetry from Edinburgh University and presently works as an associate professor in the Arabic department of Sultan Qaboos University in Oman. Alharthi has written three collections of short stories, two children’s books and three novels in Arabic. She is currently living in Al Khoudh in the Muscat Governorate of the sultanate of Oman with her civil engineer husband and their three children,

Celestial Bodies was initially published in Arabic in 2010, English in 2018 and has been translated into several other languages, as have the author’s short stories. It won the Man Booker International Prize in 2019, a first for a novel written in Arabic from the Gulf and the first book by a female Omani author to be translated into English.

Celestial Bodies is a saga of two Omani families, related by marriage, stretching over generations. It is a melodrama with many characters, hence the family tree illustrated at the beginning of the novel – an approach often used by South American novelists like Isabel Allende’s Portrait In Sepia or Gabriel Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years Of Solitude. Gabriel Garcia Marquez incidentally happens to be one of the author’s favourite writers, both novels having been read and discussed in our Book Club. Through these characters from the fictional Omani desert village of al-Awafi close to the capital Muscat, we are introduced to people’s political and cultural backgrounds.

The story features three sisters with contrasting personalities, Mayya and Asma, who both accept arranged marriages. With a pang in her heart, the first marries the son of a prosperous merchant whose grandfather made his wealth from slave trading. The second marries a self-centred artist who does not include her in his life. As for the youngest, Khawla, after waiting resignedly for her long-time childhood love to return from Canada to be betrothed, will quickly become disenchanted with her husband’s double life – one in Canada with his girlfriend and the second in Oman, when he returns to impregnate her every two years.

The three sisters are discontented with their loveless married lives. However, Mayya will submit to her fate while Asma lives outside her husband’s sphere and devotes herself to her several children. As for Khawla, she obtains a divorce from her cousin and, once liberated, opens a beauty shop in the capital city.

Celestial Bodies is a fictional story with a historical background. It is divided into fifty-eight short chapters that swivel in a non-linear narrative among the characters. Each chapter is named after the person giving his or her thoughts and views. Abdallah, the son of merchant Sulayman, who has several chapters dedicated to himself, is the main narrator and the one who gains the readers’ empathy the most. He narrates in the first person while flying to Frankfurt, revealing his diffuse feelings and various sufferings from an early age, continuing to the present day. He thinks of his abusive father, a mother who died in mysterious circumstances when he was a child and a wife who does not return his love for her.

In contrast, Zarifa, Sulayman’s slave and mistress, is one of the leading female characters, a very colourful, charming person who sheltered and looked after Abdallah following his mother’s demise is a third-person narrator. Other female characters have a third person narrating voices too. It is a man’s world, after all, even if they happen to be sensitive and defenceless like Abdallah.

Each chapter provides a glimpse of the story to be continued in the next. Fragments of characters’ views about history and events are given to the reader to gather, interlace and complete.

The author goes back and forth from the last decade of the nineteenth century to the early years of the new millennium. She gyrates unrestrictedly through the lives of three generations of well-to-do families, their divorces, inexplicable death, slaves (slavery was not outlawed in Oman until 1970) their culinary parties, their wedding ceremonies and all the other traditions which evolve as time goes by and witness the unavoidable changes creating clashes between the old and young generations.

Having a PhD in classical Arabic poetry, the author could not resist including some beautiful poems from Majnun Layla, written by the twelfth-century Persian poet, Nizami and poems from the ninth- century Iraqi poet, Ibn-Al-Rumi, and other poems from the tenth-century Iraqi poet, Al-Mutanabbi. All the poems are recited by Azzan, Mayya’s father and Salima’s husband to his beloved Bedouin mistress, Najiya, who is as beautiful as the Qamar (the moon in Arabic), during the enjoyable time they spend together away in the desert.

In her story, Alharthi portrays patriarchal society with its marriage, sorrows and male promiscuities contrasting with female submissiveness. The patriarch is illustrated as a planet around which orbits satellites of celestial female bodies, like Mayya, Asma, Khawla, Zarifa, Salima, Shanna, Masouda, Qamar and London. The celestial bodies in the sky include stars, planets, satellites, asteroids, meteoroids and comets, comparable to the different classes of society depicted in the novel; the rich, the wealthy, the slaves, and the poor.

Nevertheless, the author shows some hope with the changes of the new generation toward a more harmonious life. Celestial Bodies is a revelation of a wide-ranging Omani culture with complexities unknown to the outside world. It is a short, rich, dense novel, lyrically magical and absorbing.

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Author:
• Friday, May 28th, 2021

Hiromi Kawakami was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1958. She is a 1980 biology graduate from Ochanomizu Women’s University in Tokyo, where her degree thesis was on “reproduction in sea urchins”. In 1982, Kawakami worked for four years as a biology teacher at Denenchoolori High School. After her marriage in 1986 and her husband’s work involving living in another region of Japan, she stopped working and became a housewife and a mother. She divorced in 2009.

The Nakano Thrift Shop was published in Japanese in 2005 and English in 2016. It won the Junichiro Tanizaki Prize, one of Japan’s much sought after literary awards. It was a best-seller, translated into several languages and was adapted for television. Kawakami is known as an unconventional novelist, Haiku poet, literary critic and provocative essayist. She is one of the most acclaimed writers in Japan.

The story of The Nakano Thrift Shop revolves around four characters. Young Hitomi, the protagonist and narrator, works as a cashier in Mr Nakano’s thrift shop; the married, middle-aged Mr Nakano, the shop owner, is a mysterious person and a womanizer with various former wives. Takeo, his delivery driver, is an unemotional shy young man, disinterested in sex and to whom the passive Hitomi seems to be attracted. The fourth character is Nakano’s eldest sister, the fifty-year-old artist, Masayo, who is secretive about her regrets and heartaches. She is accommodating, has never married and volunteers to teach Hitomi a few rudiments about love and attraction.

In different ways, each character is peculiar, introverted, eccentric and with no motivation for adjustment. Hitomi has changing moods, and her thoughts evolve around Takeo and his disinterest in love and romance. Both of them seem awkward and insecure. Hitomi is uncertain about whether she loves Takeo or dislikes him. As for Takeo, his sentiments appear to be lukewarm towards her, an emotional uncertainty that is not uncommon in Kawakami’s novels.

Nothing much happens in the everyday life of the four characters – just a quiet, mundane perpetuum mobile, similar to Kawakami’s previous novel, The Briefcase, published in English in 2012, which we discussed in our Book Club in 2018. Both novels are slow-paced with no magical realism, plot, or twists, just an account of the quiet life of ordinary people. It is akin to Yasujiro Ozu’s films which have a certain charm. A line that is not uncommon with some Japanese authors and film-makers.

The novel is divided into 12 chapters. Each chapter is linked to the previous one and yet is self-contained, like an episode in a series. The chapters are titled according to items sold in the shop: Paper Weight, Letter Opener, Sewing Machine and other several bric-a-brac.

In The Nakano Thrift shop, the author concentrates more on describing the shop’s daily occurrences rather than developing her ambiguous characters, which are revealed to the reader in segments and without depth. The novel is left open-ended, giving the reader a choice for the denouement. The story provides salient insight into a Japanese shopkeeper’s daily life and the life of his workers and clients.