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Love, slavery, madness and abuse: Celestial Bodies Open in fullscreen

Ilham Essalih

Love, slavery, madness and abuse: Celestial Bodies

Celestial Bodies is the winner of the Man Booker International Prize

Date of publication: 15 October, 2019

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Book Club: Celestial Bodies is a complex intergenerational story set in the Omani village of al-Awafi, covering themes of love, slavery, madness and abuse.
The first ever novel from the Gulf to be shortlisted for and to win the Man Booker International Prize, Celestial Bodies is a complex intergenerational story set in the Omani village of al-Awafi, covering themes of love, slavery, madness and abuse.

This complexity is multidimensional and is reflected both aesthetically and thematically.

The point of view of the narrative oscillates from the first person perspective of Abdallah, a central figure in the story, to the rest of the chapters written in the third-person, offering the perspectives of the many characters in the book.

Abdallah's story provides a backbone for the tale, with the other stories woven in and around, going from past to present and back to past.

The strong distortion of time and constant going back and forth creates a gorgeous mesmerising type of circle narrative. It is preferable for the reader to simply suspend any expectations of a simple, linear, A to Z type of narrative.

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Like any intergenerational novel, this one features lot of characters. It can get confusing, especially if you take long stretches of time to read the book. Thankfully there's a family tree at the start of the book to keep the reader on track.

Similarly, the book features no glossary or explanations of Arabic words or phrases, which reflects the fact that this book does not feel like it was written for a white gaze. It is self sufficient, the story never compares or aspires to resemble or praise anything other than what it is, which is quite surprising and might I say, refreshing.

One might complain about the lack of quotation marks in the book and that it can be quite hard to follow. It can be a buzzkill or a game changer, it depends on personal preference.

It actually makes the book quite captivating once you get the hang of it. It feels like an apt reflection of Arabic script, and somehow the melody and lyricality of the Arabic language come through brilliantly in this translation and one can tell this book was originally written in Arabic.

Slavery (both metaphorical and literal) is an important theme in the story, if not a significant driving force of the events.

The family buys and owns slaves, and the slaves are an integral part of the households and the different plot lines of the novel.

A very compelling passage is when pregnant Ankabuta, a slave of African origin, delivers her own baby and gives her masters a new slave girl, while on the same day, on the 25th of September 1926, a group of men in Geneva are signing an accord to abolish and criminalise the slave trade.

Ankabuta's daughter, Zarifa, is one of the central characters in the story. When slavery is abolished, it is impossible for her to become disloyal to her former masters, and it is difficult for her to envision a world where she could be free. The passage is significant, because it shows that the international abolishment of slavery did little to save these slaves or affect their lives. It won't be until 1970 that Oman officially abolishes slavery.

In a way, she resists her newly acquired freedom and remains grateful to those who formerly held her in bondage. Despite not being a native of Oman and having clearly been taken from her ancestors' lands (presumably Zanzibar or area nearby), she doesn't feel like she was stolen from anywhere and believes she and her ancestors belong right there, in al-Awafi.

Madness is another important theme in the book and it is profoundly linked to slavery.

Many of the slave characters show signs of insanity, and one of them is Zarifa's husband Habib, a Baluchi slave. He leaves her as soon as he is no longer a slave, because he can't bare to stay in the country that enslaved him.

A passage reads, 'Before he fled, Habib told Zarifa that songs were the only thing in his memory to keep his language alive for him. That's why he sang. If he didn't have songs in there, all the hollow spaces would be filled with rage'. 

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The newly acquired freedom seems to be associated to madness, as if the slaves weren't able to mentally cope with their freedom. Habib would scream in the middle of the night, 'We are free. They stole us, and then they sold us! (...) Free! They did us wrong, they destroyed us. Free!'

Masouda, another slave, has completely lost her mind and a sense of self and identity. Like a madwoman, she repeats the same phrases throughout the day; 'It's Masouda. I'm Masouda and I'm here.'

Many of the characters, if not all, are said, in one way or another, to have gone mad or to have lost their mind. Interestingly, this fate is not reserved to the (former) slaves.

Abdallah's mother was reportedly bewitched and her 'mind was taken away'. his own sanity is described as 'eroding' at 'the noises his son makes'. His daughter too, 'almost went mad'. His aunt 'spent her life as a recluse, mind and body shut away', while his sister-in-law had 'a semi-hysterical edge to her personality'.

Here lies perhaps the message that slavery not only affects the minds of those enslaved. Owning slaves cannot leave one's mental health untainted, instead it will gnaw at the mind until it is permanently damaged.

Multiple perspectives, distorted timelines, a large array of characters, lack of conversational marks, themes of slavery, mental health, abuse, suicide, trauma; these are all elements that can make most readers squeamish of picking up a book.

Yet, this piece of literary fiction is a brilliant page-turner that's unequivocally deserving of the Man Booker International and any other future prizes.

Ilham Essalih is a Belgian-Arab book reviewer and PhD student in Postcolonial Literature. Her research focuses on gendered dimensions of postcolonial trauma in literature of Africa and the Arab world. 

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