04 August 2013

Salih's "The Wedding of Zein" and Structure

There is a lot that could be said about Tayeb Salih's The Wedding of Zein.  Salih wrote this short story collection just prior to his more-famous Seasons of Migrations to the North - a book I have previously called a "serious masterpiece" - and many of the themes carry through all three short stories in Zein and right on through into Seasons.

I have found myself most interested in the structure of Zein, especially when compared to the structure of Seasons.  Those familiar with my interest in Nabokov already know my fascination with interlaced narrative structures, and that is what I will be mostly writing about here.  But how much else there is! I'm put in mind of Thorstein Veblen: “The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one grew before.”

For example, there is a paper waiting to be written (by me!) about liminality in Salih's work, if it has not already been written.  Throughout all of these texts, characters remain on the threshold of new stages of life, especially as they are caught between cultures (the joining of Arabic and African cultures, the meeting of wealthy and poor peoples).  We meet the narrator of Seasons, as he finishes his time abroad and returns to his village (a place that is itself liminal, on the outskirts of his country and only touched by the modern world), encountering there the curious Mustafa, whose own major phase in life has ended and whose physical presence (as distinct from remembrance) in the text is only a brief preface to his death.  In Zein's "A Handful of Dates," likewise, readers are given a short account of a boy's growing understanding of life and fall from innocence, in a story that is astoundingly similar to Hemingway's "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife" (though given my fondness for Hemingway, I should beware the old adage about seeing every problem as a nail).  The eponymous story of Zein is completely about liminality, as well, given the pivotal role characters at the edge of society all play in the story - Deaf Ashmana, Mousa the Lame, Seif ad-Din, Haneen, and Zein himself.

There is a wealth of this stuff, available for new thought, since much of the scholarship on Salih looks through the lens of Arabic narrative, Islamic parables, or other cultural views.  And further, much could be written about the role of women in the texts, both in contemporary context and as artifact: slavery, female genital mutilation, polygamy, divorce, and savagely unequal relationships are struck throughout the texts.  There might be subtle condemnation or there might be subtle approval: to what extent does that assessment depend on our desire to have Salih exhibit the "correct" views?

But while this is all fascinating, I found the structure of "The Wedding of Zein" to be the thing that most immediately captured my interest.  The story begins with the announcement of the titular wedding and a succession of reaction scenes.  It continues with individual anecdotes, drawing from each scene and from the previous anecdote, before looping back to the announcement.  As each anecdote is recounted, the story plunges back to the beginning, while retaining a central core (the story of the character Zein, and how he enters into the anecdote) - a not-unusual method of assembling a tale.  If we picture it as a line, straight and then looping back and back to the central stalk, it might look something like a flower: each anecdote a petal.

And then, as "Zein" continues, another central incident occurs: a fight and reconciliation.  The anecdotes continue, but now they loop back to both central incidents.  The flower blossoms into doubled petals.

At the conclusion, all of the other petals have been drawn, and the last few paragraphs, led by the stand-alone line, "Zein got up and went off with them," are a reprisal and recitation of this whole structure.
The place bubbled with excitement like a boiling cauldron, Zein having transfused into it new energy.  The circle of men widened and narrowed, widened and narrowed, the voices growing fainter and then rising again to a pitch, the drum thundering and raging, while Zein stood, tall and thin, in his place at the center of the circle, like the mast of a ship.
It's marvelously well-done.  Was it done consciously, with an intention of this doubling back?  That's moot, and perhaps unanswerable.  But I love a well-designed story, that uses the implement of structure to help reinforce the narrative's overall thrust.  Too often, it's an approach that's ignored (not there's anything wrong with straightforward progression!) or used for cheap advantage.  An example of the latter is the lamentably common technique of an initial moment of high drama in the text, followed by several chapters of background, building up to that moment once again.  It works adequately even when the book is badly written, and perhaps that is why it is so common, but it's also lazy and ignores any further art possible in a text's structure.

It is unfortunate that Salih wrote so little - Zein and Seasons are almost everything he's left us.  It's a testament to his craftsmanship, though, that such a small legacy unfolds into such great hidden wealth.