Chapters about Djibril alternate with narratives by a mysterious prisoner, confined to a tiny cell on a desert island with only a blind old man for company. This prisoner has become a scribe for the old man, his Venerable Master, recording his thoughts on scraps of paper which blow under the door of their cell. The prisoner seems to have supernatural knowledge about Djibril, his arrival, and of the fact that he is being followed, and he is decidedly hostile towards him.
As Djibril details the country’s social conditions in his notebook, he comments on the intrusion of foreigners into the country and their damaging effects, not just on Djibouti but throughout the Third World: “Today sovereign states are losing ground, becoming denationalized in the big picture of globalization. They see whole chunks of their sovereignty crumble away, given over to conglomerates.” In Djibouti, Dubai has built a huge industrial park, and the Saudis want to build an eighteen-mile long bridge over the strait at the entrance to the Red Sea, between Djibouti and Yemen. A new city, The City of Light, built by foreigners, will arise near this bridge, with a twin city built on the other side of the bridge in Yemen. The US has long had a command center near the entrance to the Red Sea, and Italy and France have been fighting for influence in Djibouti for generations. The country, the author says, is the “greatest powder keg in the world after Afghanistan and Iraq.”
According to the prisoner, the development of terror cells, promoted and taught by a charismatic zealot, has appealed to many of the youth of the country, who no longer have a place in their country, which is now being governed by leaders with connections to foreigners. “Inspired by Satan, [their leaders] opted for the worst of all tactics. With a great deal of money, they were able to hire impious soldiers and sign pacts with foreign powers that are nothing more than the military branch of the Vatican or Israel.” As a result of the zealot’s efforts, “Fresh recruits came pouring in…including battalions of mature men who had seen the light.” The revolution he envisions will start from the Horn, branch out into Africa, and ultimately arise in the Urals, and spread to the “petromonarchies” of the Gulf.
As Djibril investigates, without much in the way of results, he remembers his past, his loving relationship with his grandfather, his difficulties with his mother, and his problems with his twin brother. He enjoys the memories of his best friend and soul brother, David, a Jewish boy. The prisoner, however, has harsher memories, and is clearly influenced by the intensity of the blind prophet and his own devotion to him and to Allah. As he is recording his Venerable Master’s words, however, he is suddenly overcome by a mystical experience: the paper on which he has been recording the Master begins to look as if it has other words, not his own, written there in tiny script, a “palimpsest.” When he breathes on the paper, the script becomes clear, and it is foreign, associated with someone named Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish philosopher, critic, and writer. Benjamin was forced to flee Germany and then France during the Nazi takeover, ultimately escaping toward Spain in the hope of reaching Portugal, just as Djibril has fled to France from Djibouti. Long passages from this “Book of Ben,” continue to raise ideas in conflict with much that the prisoner has learned.
The drama ratchets up when Djibril makes contact with someone who can provide him with information he needs, leading to a climactic final scene. Throughout, Djibril’s seemingly casual, comfortable attitudes draw in the reader, in contrast to those of the prisoner, who is distant and driven. Still, there were times in which I wondered (wrongly) whether the prisoner even existed and whether he might be an alterego for Djibril, since they seemed to share something on a psychic level. Parts of the “Book of Ben” are at times obscure, and a coherent picture of Walter Benjamin’s ideas does not fully emerge, but this does not limit their interest or their effects on a reader, including the prisoner. The author deliberately leaves questions unanswered while creating many ironies in his conclusion, and I suspect that I will be thinking of this unsettling, evocative, and memorable novel for weeks to come.