From the days of old, the desert has always been the muse of Arab poets, acting as the ultimate provoker of philosophical contemplation, in the vast endless spaces of sand and stars, with the unmediated exposure to the elements of nature. The desert has also inspired many a novelist, who submerged themselves into this foreign world and transmuted it into their texts. Perhaps the most prominent of these novelists are Abdel Rahman Mounif and Ibrahim El-Kouny.
In his second novel, The Taste of the Wolf (Ta’am al-Thi’b), Kuwaiti novelist Abdullah Al-Basees makes his own foray into this world filled with mystery and magic; a world that has maintained its innocence from the considerations of civilization, and its consequences.
The novel opens up on the protagonist, Theeban (whose name literally translated to wolves), being kicked out of his uncle’s home by his aunt (his uncle’s wife), after she lost two of her children because of him. “She threw the package on the floor and went on to threaten him: ‘I swear on the life of my children… or what is left of them, I will kill you with my own two hands if you don’t leave from here.’ She turned back to the women’s quarters, taking two steps, before she turned back, her grimacing face on the verge of collapsing into tears, and said beseechingly: ‘For the love of God, that’s enough. There are three left. I don’t want to lose them. Get out. Get out tonight. I don’t want to see your face again.’”
Theeban leaves his uncle’s home with the intent to head to Kuwait City, but in order to get there, he must traverse a vast desert.
This trip, which takes three days, becomes the framework of the novel, in which Al-Basees relies on concealing integral parts of the plot at the beginning, then revealing gradually to maintain suspense. He employs memories and dreams in a timeline that oscillates between the present, and the near and distant past, to construct the narrative piece by piece.
On societies where power and violence are synonymous with masculinity.
He assigns various characteristics to the society in which Theeban lives. Theeban, in his own right, is a peaceable character who hates violence, which causes everyone to taunt and ridicule him, based on the conviction that power and violence are characteristics of masculinity, and those who lack them are unworthy of manhood.
As fate would have it, at one point in the novel, Theeban revolts against his oppressors, accidentally killing a young man who insulted him in the presence of his love interest. Since tribal laws dictate that vengeance must be exacted, Theeban appeals to his uncle and hides out in his house. Consequently, conflicts erupt between the two families, and there are victims on both sides.
Thus, the novel sheds light on a variety of issues that remain prevalent today, despite the passing of time and the changing circumstances. To this day, a large portion of Arab society believes in violence and power as being synonymous with manhood, viewing the disposition toward peace as cowardice and weakness, unsuitable for men. Crimes of vengeance still exist, despite the tragedies and losses they have caused.
“After a period of torture that lasted for what seemed to him to be a whole day, he heard the voice of Ibn Batel: ‘My will unto you is for you to take the compensation and leave this poor boy alone.’ ‘The innocent are not killed, Ibn Batel,’ said another voice that Theeban guessed belonged to Fayhan Al-Ghadib. ‘You no we do not accept compensation for the blood of our dead,’ the voice continued, thickening with anger. ‘We either kill him or die instead of him.’”
The novel can be considered as having a single protagonist, as the main character is Theeban, while the remaining characters have a secondary presence with the sole purpose of shedding light on the protagonist’s thoughts, beliefs, dreams, obsessions, and fears.
During his trip through the desert, we discover his character with more clarity, in the nakedness of nature, where he behaves instinctually. There, he recalls the youthful sparkle of childhood, exposing his self and trying to understand it. Against this backdrop, the author sets him up against a wolf, awaiting the perfect opportunity to attack. Thus, Theeban is forced to confront his fear alone for the first time, without any support. In the process, he goes on a surreal adventure, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.
In a long conversation between Theeban and the wolf, they discuss a number of philosophical and existential issues, culminating in the protagonist’s discovery that he must fight for his existence and survival.
“While he was searching through the fur, he found that he had taken a piece of meat from the side; a red slice with small black spots. He didn’t think for long, feeling that everything had been predestined. He ripped into it with his teeth, and began chewing it vigorously until he could feel it moving in his stomach. The wolf’s voice rattled with the wind: ‘Enough, Theeban.’”
The element of suspense on which the author relies in dividing the novel’s plot and gradually uncovering it is maintained until the end. On the final pages, the reader is surprised by an unexpected plot twist, renewing in one strike the novel’s fundamental questions about faith, fear, violence, power, peace, and vengeance.
Al-Basees has previously published two short-story collections, The Diwaniya and The Wall, as well another novel, entitled Stray Memories.