Each year Hassan gathers people to the city square and retells a story of a time when two mysterious strangers came to the city. As he speaks he deviates into memories of his childhood, and his audience interrupt to give their own version of events as well. Love and mystery mingle with beauty and truth as people give different accounts of what transpired.
First of all, the prose is beautiful and often verges towards poetry. The way Roy-Bhattacharya describes things is incredibly sensual and I loved how he painted a picture of the surroundings with his words. The main theme of the novel is to explore the nature of storytelling, and he approaches it from a philosophical perspective with a very relativistic approach to truth, love, and beauty. We’re warned throughout the novel that the story won’t have a clean resolution, so the reader has a chance to prepare for the lingering mystery. The story veers off into tangents, and Hassan is continually interrupted by his listeners, some of whom have important things to say, others not so much. There isn’t really a central plot as such and I can imagine the thoughtful, contemplative nature will dissuade a lot of people from reading it.
The mystery about the strangers is peeled away gradually and I enjoyed the way this was presented. Personally, I enjoyed the tangents as well. The book has an almost timeless quality to it and shows the universal nature of the themes in stories, as often the atmosphere is presented as almost mythical in quality, but then we’re given quick reminders that it does in fact take place in contemporary times. The structure of the book took some getting used to as speech marks are never used, and so sometimes it’s unclear who is speaking. This leads two one of the book’s main failings as well – each character sounds the same. Some of the characters are described as common folk, and yet they speak as though they are poets. They have different attitudes and beliefs, but their style of speech is the same, and this I found took me out of the story. In addition to this there was an annoying trait, where he would use a foreign word to describe something, then have a character repeat the meaning of that phrase in English. If they were actually speaking they wouldn’t bother to translate it to the person they were speaking to.
As a meditation on storytelling it’s fairly good, although I disagree with the main tenet presented, in that the way the story is told is more important than the story itself. I feel that with a stronger resolution this book would have been a classic as it is beautifully written. As it is it amounts to almost 300 pages of meandering philosophy that doesn’t seem to have a point other than concepts of truth etc boil down to one’s own perception. It’s not revelatory, although the flowery prose does disguise this somewhat.
While I was reading it I enjoyed it, but after I finished it I realized that it’s a story that wants the reader to ponder the meaning of it all. Sadly, the plot and the characters aren’t compelling enough to make me want to do that legwork.