Al Arabian Novel Factory is the sequel to Jasmine Days, the story of young radio jockey Sameera Parvin, an immigrant in the city from Pakistan, and her guitar-playing colleague Ali Fardan.
Malayalam writer Benyamin sets his new novel Al Arabian Novel Factory in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The book begins with the narrator, Indian-Canadian journalist Pratap, receiving an offer from his editor to travel to the Middle East to conduct research for a well-known writer’s next work. Pratap arrives in an unnamed port city to join an international team of researchers and hopes to find his college sweetheart Jasmine who lives there.
Then comes the twist in the tale. Instead of Jasmine, Pratap encounters an uncorrected book proof in the city. The book, A Spring Without Fragrance, is written by a Pakistani immigrant named Sameera Parvin. Soon, the research for the internationally-acclaimed author’s new book and the mystery surrounding the book proof merge, leading to disastrous consequences.
Al Arabian Novel Factory is the sequel to Jasmine Days, the story of young radio jockey Sameera Parvin, an immigrant in the city from Pakistan, and her guitar-playing colleague Ali Fardan. If his previous novel revolves around the Jasmine revolution, the new one is about its aftermath. Benyamin gathers a raft of characters unrelated to his previous work to explore the undercurrents of a bruised society.
Published simultaneously in Malayalam six years ago, Jasmine Days and Al Arabian Novel Factory offer the same view of the city through different characters. While Jasmine Days dealt with the life of immigrants from south Asia and the Arab population from elsewhere being denied rights despite being an integral part of society, the sequel delves deep into the rot in the system. Benyamin, who lived as an immigrant in Bahrain for over two decades, lets the reader feel the pulse of the local community divided by its loyalties.
Jasmine Days (original Malayalam title Mullappoo Niramulla Pakalukal), which was published in English two years ago, won the inaugural JCB Prize for Literature for 2018. Benyamin’s newest translation in English blurs the lines of trust and truth. Pratap, the narrator, is unsure of the true identities of those he comes across. The discovery of Sameera Parvin’s book sets him on a perilous journey across the city in which people and places assume different appearances as the circumstances change.
Al Arabian Novel Factory is like a Russian doll, every turn of the page offers a new possibility. The novel’s ensemble cast is a mirror of society remotely controlled by an authoritarian regime. Its narrator Pratap is caught between his work as a researcher for the novel and his eagerness to meet his college sweetheart, curiously named Jasmine. Pratap’s research team includes Vinod, a journalist from India whose prejudices are not different from the mistrust running through the city.
There is also Riyaz Malik from Pakistan, who provides the opportunity to Pratap to discover Sameera Parvin’s mysterious book proof, and Edwin, a Briton who finds his soulmate on the plane while travelling from London to the city to lead the researchers. His Majesty, the ruler, is infected with “tunnel disease”, a new infection that has been “spreading from one head of state to another”.
The infection causes lack of sleep and dreams of being chased through a dirty tunnel. There is also His Majesty’s “ancient doctor” with trembling hands, who dreams of migrating to Canada, and Jahangir, who runs a cable television service. “What else can I do? There is law and then there’s life,” says Jahangir about his service that is illegal in the city.
Benyamin skillfully negotiates the contours of a closed society with the aid of a banned book and an ensemble cast. The city in Al Arabian Novel Factory symbolises what is wrong with such regimes that brutalise societies and tramples on privacy and freedom of expression. The agents hunting down people who have read Sameera Parvin’s book confess to not having read it. “It contains a few sentences that malign this country. I don’t know what exactly since I haven’t read it,” says an investigator.
The author can’t help mixing references to his best-selling debut novel, Goat Days—also set in the Middle East—in his new work. Father Geevarghese Pachamannil, a priest on a three-year deputation in the city, tells Pratap that he has stopped eating mutton after reading a book about goats recently. “Literature can create miraculous changes in how we see the world, how we behave in it, even what we eat. But since readers are in a minority in our society, those changes are invisible,” says the priest. Even the priest, however, can’t last in the city. He seeks a return home midway through his job.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer.