Nélida Piñon is among Brazil’s best known writers, and Voices of the Desert is her third novel – after The Republic of Dreams and Caetana’s Sweet Song – that Knopf has published. This isn’t to say she’s preferable to Lygia Fagundes Telles or Rachel de Queiroz, or as entertaining as Patrícia Melo, but hers is a solid, literary voice that can hold its own with authors worldwide.
Voices of the Desert recounts the story of Scheherazade, the Vizier’s daughter who singlehandedly wages psychological warfare against the Caliph of Baghdad, an overweight, middle-aged man who is exacting revenge against his wife, the Sultana, who defiantly slept with another man. He had them put to death. After that, he began taking a virgin bride every night and in the morning would order her execution.
Into this epidemic of senseless deaths steps Scheherazade, determined to put an end to it, and of course there’s no way of knowing if hers is an altruistic folly or simply a meaningless martyrdom. Where has she acquired such self-assurance and bravery?
It should be emphasized that this is not a fairy tale or an entertainment to be read for colorful thrills. Piñon immerses us in Scheherazade’s endless fears and anxieties. Each evening she weaves a tale, assuming the roles and voices of countless characters, young and old, male and female, but she also leaves the Caliph with a little cliffhanger, some unfinished thread that will convince him to stay the sentence of death for one more day.
Each evening, when the Caliph enters the chamber where Scheherazade awaits (her only companions being her elder sister, Dinazarda, and the slave girl, Jasmine), he engages her in perfunctory sex, mere copulation without joy, then rearranges himself and sits back to hear her stories.
They are, of course, the tales in (or associated with) The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Sinbad and Aladdin and Ali Baba and all the rest, colored with impressions drawn from Baghdad marketplaces when Scheherazade was a girl, or, more recently, since she cannot leave the palace, from the devoted Jasmine (after all, the three women have to combine their resources, especially as the weeks and months drag by).
Despite the daily copulation, Scheherazade has no affection for the Caliph. “She is struggling for her life,” Piñon writes early on, “obeying the instinct of narrative adventure and passion for justice.” A hundred pages later, her goal and focus remain unchanged: “to save the young women of the kingdom caught in the sights of a despot.”
And, again, a hundred pages more: “Her strategy is to gain time and suffer the Caliph’s stony heart, to have him rescind the curse cast upon the young women of the realm, and only then to flee.”
The achievement of Voices of the Desert is in the way that Piñon forces us to agonize with her female characters. If the Caliph is displeased and tires of the stories he need only gesture to the executioner who stands guard outside the entrance to the chamber. Dread and apprehension are a veil, and they’re never lifted.
This comes at a price, in that the weariness of the characters and the harrowing repetition of their day-to-day lives in turn emanates from the page. There is not very much excitement here in what the reader is given; presumably all the excitement is in the tales that Scheherazade somehow, almost miraculously, is able to conjure up. We receive only hints of those stories, but never the stories themselves. In the end there is no reason for us, unlike the Caliph, to remain on the edge of our seat.
Possibly there’s a short story or a novella here, but Voices of the Desert runs out of steam. Piñon’s female readers may tap into psychological levels that male readers may not, and it’s even possible to see the book as a meditation on storytelling and the creative process, but this reader was not entertained, and so it’s a good thing he’s not the Caliph or heads would roll.
Scheherazade has no fear of death. She does not believe that worldly power as represented by the Caliph, whom her father serves, decrees by her death the extinguishing of her imagination.
She tried to persuade her father that she alone can break the chain of deaths of maidens in the kingdom. She cannot bear seeing the triumph of evil that marks the Caliph’s face. She will oppose the misfortune that invades the homes of Baghdad and its environs, by offering herself to the ruler in a seditious sacrifice.
Her father objected when he heard his daughter’s proposal calling upon her to reconsider but failing to change her mind. He insisted again, this time smiting the purity of the Arabic language, employing imprecations, spurious, bastardized, scatological words used by the Bedouins in wrath and frolic alike. Shamelessly he marshaled every resource to persuade her. After all, his daughter owed him not only her life but also the luxury, the nobility, her rarefied education. (…)
Despite the Vizier’s protests when faced with the threat of losing his beloved daughter, Scheherazade persisted in this decision, which really involved her entire family. Each member of the Vizier’s clan evaluated in silence the significance of the decreed punishment, the effects that her death would have on their lives.
Voices of the Desert, by Nélida Piñon, translated by Clifford Landers (Alfred A. Knopf, 254 pp., $24.95)
Bondo Wyszpolski is the Arts and Entertainment Editor for Easy Reader newspaper in California.