Before beginning a novel, I like to know about the writer; I turn to the back, read the profile of the writer, other works, other life etc. As Martin Amis once said, it’s not about connecting with the characters, but connecting with the author. Just reading G.Willow Wilson’s small, brief biography at the back of the book, you know you are going to be in for something ambitious and she delivers a sprawling, fast-paced debut novel full of ideas; a combination of old age fantasy, genie’s and magic, and the hard, modern day realism of the cultural revolutions in the middle east.
Set at the time of the Arab Spring, Alif is a a hacktivist with no allegiances to any political ideology ‘Alif was not an ideologue; as far as he was concerned, anyone who could pay for his protection was entitled to it’. Alif’s hacking away, until he finds himself the target of ‘The Hand’, an ambiguous, presumably government censor who’s sinister intent, transcends the metaphysical, internet world and into the real one.
Alif’s is then embroiled in to a catch me if you can scenario with his veiled, female neighbour Dina, as his love interest Intisar is the subject of an arranged marriage. Before she leaves him though, she gives him a used, worn but incredibly rare book, the Alf Yeom, The Thousand and One Days which is an ingenious invention by Wilson, a supposed alternative to Scheherazades, The Thousand and One Nights, except the Alf Yeom is rarer and is a much more powerful entity. Its ironic as Alif’s online prowess cannot translate into physical ability, as he is plunged into a game of cat and mouse in the real world, that has the feel of a video game.
It is the Alf Yeom though that the whole novel centres around, as the second half of the book embarks on a journey of the magical and djinn, Alif complies with Vikram the Vampire, a droll, underworld type figure perhaps a nod to the disputably non-religious The Golden Compass (which gets numerous mentions throughout the novel) the aforementioned Dina, and an American convert, not just to a muslim, but a convert from the western world into this chaotic eastern world, battling prejudices (this arguably resembles Wilson, American born, Islamic convert which she writes about in her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque).
As Alif reads the Alf Yeom he comes to understand that the various tales within it (and Wilson treats us to a few) are sources of deep, metaphorical knowledge. This then is the crux of tale as both Alif and the hand want to harness this knowledge, unlike The Thousand and One Nights, which is effectively binary – black and white text; the Alf Yeom’s stories can be translated as powerful, secret knowledge. However, earlier In the novel, Dina and Alif are discussing the Golden Compass,
‘This book….is full of pagan images. It’s dangerous’
‘Don’t be ignorant. They’re metaphors. I told you, you wouldn’t understand’.
‘Metaphors are dangerous’.
And this is the precursor for the rest of the novel and the Alf Yeom as this is ultimately a book about the power of words and language. Wilson holds no reservations for genre fiction, and in this case she uses it as a powerful tool, because when you strip away the magic, the descriptions of computer programming, you are left with something like the Alf Yeom’s most wanted entity, a powerful philosophy to be harnessed. Centuries of people have tried to exploit and promote their religion with their texts. It has effectively been a war of words, a war of books, as Dina says ‘I was afraid you’d turn into one of those literary types who say books can change the world when they’re feeling good about themselves and its only a book when anybody challenges them. It wasn’t about the book themselves – it was about hypocrisy’. Inevitably Dina uses the example of Salman Rushdie’s, The Satanic Verses. A book produced in the west that sparked outrageous levels of controversy in the east, Rushdie’s use of metaphors for Islamic culture were clearly dangerous. In this age of the internet that Wilson encapsulates, when is a book only a book? And how powerful can a book continue to be.
There might even be a tiny hint of Wittgenstein influence on the view of language when Alif says ‘So you walk, and the path gets rockier, and then there are gaps, and eventually, you find you’re not even in the garden anymore, but out in some howling desert. And you can’t retrace your steps because the path itself was all in your head’ reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s ideas on private language, or more an ironic clash of philosophies between religious (heavy understatement i know) Gandhi and atheist Wittgenstein. People have likened Wilson to Neil Gaiman for the blend of philosophy and genre fiction, but there is a hint of Dickens in the way she evokes cities and its people; the wealth divisions as Wilson contrasts the New Quarter part of the City with the Old Quarter and the Empty Quarter; a city in conflict not only now with its people and its government, but also with its history and its future, its old and new culture. One might even go so far to say that magical realists like Garcia Marquez are evident, evoking the scenes in One Hundred Years of Solitude, with the gypsies bringing magic to the town of Macondo, another capital city (we can assume the City Wilson’s novel is Cairo) in constant revolutions and upheavals.
Besides this, the dialogue at times is a bit clunky, and a touch more subtlety in the mixing of the magical and real elements might have sufficed, and with everything else that it is going on, the love story feels a bit neglected. These are relatively minor, because there is not much to detract from this triumph and as Wilson continues to mature as a writer, these are likely to become more accomplished. Corvus Books (in house publisher of Atlantic Books) should be optimistic of its future with Wilson, because she undoubtedly has a big future as a writer. At times, it reeks of silver screen adaptation.
As we enter the denouement of the tale in the closing scenes, it evokes the scenes witnessed last year in the Arab Spring; a clash of the authority with the people, the bourgesoie and the proletariat, the clashing of old history and the new-age future, the clashing of the religions, the east and the west. A clash of cultures.
Alif the Unseen (427 pp) by G.Willow Wilson, is published by Corvus Books and is out in hardback now for £12.99.