Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Ebnou, Barzakh (2022)

Moussa Ould Ebnou, Barzakh: The Land In-Between. Translated from French by Marybeth Timmermann. Iskanchi Press, 2022. Pp. 209. ISBN 978-1-957810-00-3. $26.99 pb/$9.99 e.

Reviewed by Jason Kahler

I am acutely aware that I approach every book I read weighed-down by the baggage of my history. That load was particularly burdensome as I read the excellent Barzakh: The Land In-Between by Moussa Ould Ebnou. My exposure to African literature is woefully inadequate, so I can’t place this book anywhere within that tradition. I can’t tell you how it stacks up against contemporary African literature, or the African literature of the past. I can tell that my unfamiliarity with Africa as a literary tradition and as a geographic region heightened the sense of strangeness and other-ness I felt while reading. In many ways, that actually impacted my experience with this novel for the better. Readers who are more familiar with these traditions are sure to appreciate what they find in this story.

The landscape of Barzakh is ethereal and alien to me, mimicking the experience of the protagonist, Gara, who travels through three distinct eras in Mauritania, struggling to understand his significance in the world and the motivations of the people in it. Gara is enslaved at every turn, but through his eyes, we never fail to see the opportunity for reflection and appreciation. This book isn’t an apology for slavery. Rather, it’s a harsh condemnation of a practice that dehumanizes so violently that a moment in the shade is an almost-spiritual release.

The landscape is a character unto itself. Is this what Mauritania was truly like? I don’t know. Surface-level research teaches me that Mauritania has been long defined by two things: the harsh environment punctuated by arid desert, and the perpetuation of slavery deep into modern times. Both the desert and slavery direct Gara’s life and cause almost equal hardship. The book works to understand how they work together, and if there’s ever hope of separating the two.

In that way, Barzakh is deeply philosophical and metaphysical. Gara puzzles over his lot, his fate, how some men can be above others and in complete control of their lives. I might have thought this sets the book on the path to revolution, but it never strays from contemplation. In this example, Gara is attached to a merchant caravan making its way through the desert:

One drop of rain! The weather was very oppressive, indicating a storm. The sun disappeared behind a dark gray wall sprinkled with red and black spots; the storm raged, but in the sky at very high altitudes, and the rain evaporated before it hit the ground; only a few miraculous drops made it all the way down to the hot sand. The atmosphere, saturated with electricity, disoriented the camels. We hurried to depart, hoping to get out of the phantom storm’s reach. (65–66)

Why don’t the enslaved men use the chaos of a storm to run away? How am I supposed to respond to the uncomfortable camaraderie that builds between the slaveowners and the enslaved? I credit my unease to my unfamiliarity with this literature and this country. Also, that’s just not the book Ebnou has chosen to write.

If you’re looking for sci-fi punctuated by laser battles and ships crossing the void, this isn’t the book for you, either. The time travel aspect lets the book get shelved in the store’s SCI FI section, but taken individually, the divisions of the narrative have few science-fiction elements. I hope that doesn’t scare away readers of this review, though I suspect this review’s audience appreciates the nuances of so-called genre fiction. The book isn’t space opera, but it’s tackling many of the ideas I find interesting in the best speculative fiction. With its time jumps and shifting sands, Barzakh: The Land In-Between is disorienting in all the best ways. I left the book feeling unsure, but also satisfied. Curious about what I had been missing. Ready to go searching through a new world.

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