The title of Bensalem Himmich’s 2008 novel, “Haza al-Andalusi!” (“This Andalusian!”), is as subdued in Arabic as it is attention-grabbing in English. In translation, it becomes “A Muslim Suicide,” a title that sprawls across the book’s cover in bright block letters.
But this new title, translator Roger Allen explains, is not a betrayal of the author’s intentions. In fact, it hews very closely to the author’s original wishes. According to Allen’s afterword, Himmich had wanted to call the book “Al-Intihar bi-Jiwar al-Ka’aba” (“Suicide Beside the Ka’aba”) for the way his protagonist reportedly died in AD 1269.
Himmich isn’t sure that his main character was a suicide. “A Muslim Suicide,” like Himmich’s celebrated “The Polymath,” is a carefully crafted historical novel that takes a philosopher as its hero. “A Muslim Suicide” follows 13th-century Sufi philosopher Ibn Sab’in as he struggles to maintain his independence from authorities. Ibn Sab’in is forced first out of Spain, and then Morocco, and is finally killed — or commits suicide — in Mecca.
“A Muslim Suicide,” which was long-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009, doesn’t offer a realistic portrait of Ibn Sab’in’s peculiarities, loves and companions. As in previous novels, Himmich diverges sharply from European literary and artistic traditions that value giving the impression of three-dimensional reality.
Certainly, contemporary artists are aware of the limits of “realism,” both in the visual arts and in literature. But the European novel tradition nonetheless still creates the expectation that a book will present the “real” and “individual” flaws of its characters. Indeed, beginner novelists are told to make their characters “round,” or to give them the appearance of dimensionality.
Himmich’s novel doesn’t do this. We don’t learn much about the individual natures of his characters, and none of his characters could be called “round.” They are far more like the human figures in Islamic art than the “realistic” images of European portraiture.
The figures in “A Muslim Suicide” are thus not to be enjoyed because we relate to the woes of this 13th-century sage and his companions. It’s true that we can see similarities between the rulers and revolutionaries in Himmich’s book and rulers and revolutionaries today. But Himmich’s book is mostly to be enjoyed for the wonderful florescence of beautiful ideas and details. Go on; keep reading.