Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Three Apples

I finished reading Kingdom of Strangers by Zoe Ferraris several weeks ago, but I was uncertain about how exactly to follow up on my previous post (July 7). When I had only just started reading the book, I was immediately drawn to the author's use of a well-known, yet little understood, verse from the Qur'an (74:30), in which the number nineteen plays a key role.

At the risk of providing too many spoilers, let me just say that the serial killer, who is the central villain in the novel, arranges the many murders he commits in the form of a trilogy designated by three apples.

The 'Story of the Three Apples' can be found in the anthology we generally refer to as the Arabian Nights, but is more correctly called the Thousand and One Nights (alf laylah wa-laylah). The framing narrative for this collection concerns the fate of Scheherazade, who tells a series of nightly stories to her new husband, the Persian king Sharyar, as a means of avoiding being put to death. Sharyar, it seems, is paranoid about the potential for any of his wives to commit adultery. Consequently, he kills them off once their marriage has been consummated. This leaves him in perpetual need of a new virgin to marry, and, from our perspective, probably qualifies him for the title of fiction's first serial killer.

The content of the Arabian Nights, like the content of the Qur'an, is well known by the majority of Muslim Arabs. However, while reading the latter text can be considered an obligation in Islam, reading the former text is largely forbidden.

Kingdom of Strangers is a laudable piece of contemporary crime fiction, albeit one that relies more heavily than most on its context. Ferraris does a commendable job of portraying the sociocultural complexity of Saudi Arabia, and is particularly adept at using the stark, arid geography of the region to accentuate her story. I do have a couple of small criticisms, and a caution for readers.

First, from a readability perspective, the book does get bogged down about two-thirds of the way through, as what are perhaps a few too many sub-plots wrestle their way towards resolution. Second, as a service to her readers, Ferraris provides a brief glossary of the Arabic terms she uses throughout her novel, but there is an interesting omission. On page 317, she has Katya say to herself, "Ya majnoun," just as she has her big aha moment about the three apples. This expression, which means something like, "Oh, you retard," does not appear in the glossary.

For those readers whose knowledge and experience of Islam and the Middle East are somewhat limited, one should be cautious about equating the culture of Saudi Arabia with the culture of all Islamic societies. And, perhaps even more importantly, one should be cautious about equating the official Saudi interpretation of Islam with the broader and highly variable interpretations of Islam that exist across cultural and ethnic divides, in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.