Sunday, 3 November 2019

Book review: The Bamboo Stalk, Saud Alsanousi (2015)

I don’t know if Alsanousi spent a lot of time in the Philippines, but what he writes about that country in this engrossing novel of manners – split, as it is, between two worlds – rings true. I’ve never been to the country but I have travelled to developing Asian countries, including Thailand. I’ll have to leave the final judgement about these parts of the novel to someone else, preferably someone who has lived in the Philippines.

The title of the book – bamboo can be easily transplanted and the protagonist’s father Rashid conceived Jose in Kuwait, where Jose’s mother had been working as a maid – tells you enough about the direction the story will take away the shame of giving away, here, clues about it.

As in an old novel, one made in an earlier time, a coincidence is used near the end of the book to create drama and to propel the narrative forward. But this novel is, as another reviewer has noted, a “page-turner with depth”. The woman who wrote those words runs a website dedicated to the promotion of Arabic writing and her remarks are unsurprising since, in Alsanousi’s novel, nationalism, religion, and identity are central themes.

More surprising is that it has been largely ignored in the West. More’s the pity! It certainly deserves to be more widely read. The idea of a novel based half in the Philippines and half in Kuwait: this must strike your average inner-city Labor voter as appealing.

Keeping in mind the reservation already expressed, I have to say that I found ‘The Bamboo Stalk’ to be both wise and funny. The young Jose – who uses the name Isa in Kuwait – struggles with life in both of his homelands, and struggles as well with his own feelings. He is not overly bright and seems to be puzzled by many things but Alsanousi shows that, despite differences in the forms they take in different contexts, the things that drive us all – no matter where we are born and no matter who our parents are – are the same.

In the parts of the book that are set in Kuwait the social dynamics that are evident consone with ideas I had already come across elsewhere: in a masterful book of history by Englishman Tim Mackintosh-Smith. The way that custom in Arab countries functions to maintain the social hierarchy, even in the face of the moderating force of revealed religion, make a place like Kuwait starkly different to, for example, the Philippines. There, on the other hand, other problems exist that contrive to work against overcoming inequity and helping to achieve justice for all. But in Kuwait, according to this author, the forces of conservatism are remarkably resilient.

The entire narrative is focalised through Jose/Isa but there is a large cast of characters and all of them are portrayed with empathy. The character of Gassan, a friend of Jose’s father, is particularly well realised. Gassan is from a family with nomadic roots (such people are commonly referred to as Bedouin, and they live in many Middle Eastern countries) so he is treated as an outsider by the broader Kuwaiti community.

Alsanousi’s novelistic vision has resulted in the production of something wonderful. If you give this book a go you’ll be rewarded with hours of pleasure.

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