Books: Arabian sights

Robert Irwin goes to sea; The Carrier by Jamal Mahjoub Phoenix House, pounds 16.99
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Indy Lifestyle Online
`The legend that is Algiers awaits ... A city where the privateers and the freebooters, the traders and the slave merchants, all found shelter from the sea, each of them fighting their own little piece of the world." Although Jamal Mahjoub's novel opens in the port of the Barbary corsairs, by the 17th century its great age - and of the pirates who made it rich and feared - was over. More generally, the Islamic world was losing ground to the European powers. The Carrier is about an Oriental's quest for learning in the West in an age when Oriental learning was in decline. It contains eloquent passages on the decay of Arab and Persian science as well as sensual descriptions of astrolabes and armillary spheres. There are also vivid evocations of seedy North African port life, and expertly narrated episodes of violence and treachery in Cadiz and Denmark.

Rashid al-Kenzy was born to an Arab father and Nubian slave mother who was reputed to have the evil eye. Rashid's destiny is strange: after an education in Damascus, he flees to the Valley of the Dreamers (a centre for Muslim free-thinkers) before fetching up in Algiers. There he falls victim to a murder rap and escapes execution by "volunteering" to undertake a dangerous mission - to procure from Holland the latest specimen of Western technology, the telescope.

Rashid embarks on a ship bound for Holland. The sailors detect that he is a passenger of ill omen, and his storm-tossed voyage is garnished with echoes of Coleridge, Poe and Melville. The tale of the doomed quest is interleaved with the investigations of Hasan, an Arabic-speaking scholar resident in modern Denmark who is studying an ancient site on the Danish peninsula. Besides this parallel story, Mahjoub makes artful use of most of the devices that heighten suspense: stories within stories, flashbacks and the withholding of information.

Shipwrecked, Rashid is cast ashore in Denmark and taken under the protection of Heinesen, a Faustian figure determined to build an observatory tower from whose pinnacle it will be demonstrated that the earth moves round the sun and not vice versa. Heinesen's sister, Sigrid, is similarly preoccupied with heliocentrism, but at a more literary and hermetic level.

In some respects The Carrier is more like a poem than a novel. The account of the doomed love between Rashid and Sigrid, laden with astronomical and other conceits, reads like a meditation by John Donne. The novel contains some beautiful writing and fine story-telling, but in the final third it seemed to lose direction. In the end, I was no wiser about the meaning of Rashid's destiny than I was at the beginning.

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