Chaos of the Senses

  • By Ahlem Mosteghanemi; translated by Nancy Roberts
  • Bloomsbury
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Bridget Connelly
  • February 4, 2016

A diaphanous Algerian tale as lush and evocative as a poem.

The sensual oceanic blues on the cover of Ahlem Mosteghanemi’s novel Chaos of the Senses invites readers to enter midstream into a passionate trilogy of love and politics, set in post-independence Algeria. International blockbusters in the Arabophone world, these books are praised as good reads — wry and racy — written in a breezy, aphoristic style, on daring themes.  

Mosteghanemi’s allegory of love in a time of violent civil war plunges the reader into a vertiginous fictional world with an unnamed man and the woman who is in his thrall. The language is florid and highly figurative.

Deluged in a sea of overwrought metaphors, I kept wondering what had been lost in the translation of this novel that is from all accounts a linguistic tour-de-force in Arabic. It took a second reading to understand that this tale of forbidden love is a literary tease — a game between author and reader, like a crossword puzzle or a lovers’ Scrabble board.

Nancy Roberts’ new translation renders the Arabic wordplay of the original into a literal take, making no attempt to tame its insistent hyperbole, personification, and strangeness of idiom. The language frustrated my desire to get close to the story and its two faceless lovers. In the end, though, Roberts’ effort to convey the rich poetic texture and structure of Mosteghanemi’s text (replete with elaborate paronomasia and pun-games) is successful.

The author wryly plays both her reader and her characters, setting them up in a guessing game of elaborate extended metaphors and similes. In the opening pages, the unnamed lovers test each other. He wants to “nurture love amid the mines of the senses,” to examine loyalty without words.

She cannot figure out how she found her way to him. A third-person narrator poses the question: Who is this silent man who “writes her and erases her,” who comes to her in the “late hour of longing,” taking her unawares?

Our heroine gasps “as untamed steeds of longing” take her into a “luminous state in the darkness of the senses” and “awaken her inner madness,” set her “ablaze with desire,” only to leave her yearning alone in the mornings “without the ghost of his fragrance,” only a “vacant seat” inhabited by love’s memory.

The woman, we learn, is Hayat, the fickle narrator and writer of the short story called “The Man with a Coat” that begins Chaos. The unnamed man is a “paper lover,” a man with secrets and a multitude of names and identities, who, with a single glance, “could strip away her reason” and “clothe her in his lips…a man who knew how to touch both a woman and words with the same hidden blaze,” and who, “with a mocking lethargy” embraced her “from behind the way he might embrace a fleeing sentence.”

He is a man of silence and a lover who refuses to take off his coat.

An old Arabic poetic conceit has it that language is a garment to be donned, that words are a coat which adorns and covers the real. Some words, as our first-person narrator tells us, “are scandalously transparent, like a woman who’s just come out of the sea wearing a diaphanous dress that clings to her body…Yet transparent words are decidedly more dangerous, since they cling to us [and] pass into our very beings.”

Even the dustjacket enters into translating and decoding Mosteghanemi’s symbolic game. The figure of a woman rising from the sea appears on the front cover. Her dress’ bodice clings to her breasts as the sheer blue skirt billows and swirls into mists of seafoam and sky. The long, sinuous figure resembles a snake, a sea monster emerging from the blood-dappled waves of a stormy winter ocean, a nippled force of creation, faceless, her head disappearing off the top edge of the book.

The snake-woman is Hayat. Her name in Arabic denotes both life and snake; it translates into English as Eve. Hayat is the beloved who betrays; she is the confessional I-narrator with a notebook who creates this novel that has no plot, only characters in search of an author (and perhaps readers in search of the real story).

Chaos is a philosophical tale for the 21st century, with echoes of Baudelaire and Borges, Nizzar Qabbani and Sindbad the Sailor. It is also a masterful, long prose poem of exile, written by the daughter of an Algerian patriot and hero. As the first Algerian woman to write novels in Arabic instead of French, Mosteghanemi has become a literary phenomenon, credited with decolonizing writing and reclaiming Arabic literacy and learning in Algeria.

Mosteghanemi ends Chaos of the Senses in an ellipsis, leaving the reader suspended midsentence, waiting for…

…The next word, and the next book of the trilogy featuring Hayat and the mysterious lovers who narrate her and enslave her.

Bridget Connelly is author of Forgetting Ireland and Arab Folk Epic and Identity, and co-editor of The Berkeley Literary Women’s Revolution.

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