Book #10 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.
This book was recommended to me by a friend of mine (one who has excellent taste in books), so I eagerly added it to my Amazon order of books for the first quarter of 2021. As my first foray into the genre of magical realism, I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I turned the cover and plunged into the narrative. Having finished, I can now say that magical realism is now one of my top genres of novel, which works out great as I have One Hundred Years of Solitude lined up to read later in the year. Anyway, without further ado, let’s jump into my review.
I Stared at the Night of the City by Bakhtiyar Ali is the first Kurdish novel to be translated into English. The story follows a group of like-minded friends, all with powerful imaginations, on a quest to discover the truth behind the murder of two lovers. Their search brings them into direct conflict with the Barons, who hold great power and run the city behind the scenes. Each chapter is told from an unreliable narrator’s perspective, each with their own quirks, morals and ambitions. The onus is on the reader to piece together the narrative, deciding who is and isn’t to be trusted.
The novel centres on the conflict between Ghazalnus and the Baron of Imagination, as they battle for control over the Imaginative Creatures (people gifted with powerful imaginations). The Baron of Imagination seeks to use the Imaginative Creatures to construct a new district in the city, one that embodies imagination, a paradise on earth. Meanwhile, Ghazalnus believes that the imagination shouldn’t be exploited for material gain and despises the Baron’s thirst for power.
Alongside this central narrative, many subplots add to the rich tapestry. The redemption story of a former assassin, Hasan-i Pizo, being one such example. Throughout the novel, the reader is introduced to characters and transported to beautiful gardens that blur the line between imagination and reality. Ultimately, the book is so multi-layered that my brief outline of the plot doesn’t do this masterpiece justice.
‘The entire revolution was such a fantastical event that no one knew exactly what to make of it. When the uprising succeeded, it came to a bitter, ugly end. One day, I killed a woman and looked into her eyes. That gaze changed my entire life. In the eyes of that woman, I saw the end of the fantasy. I saw the swept-away hat the comrade had talked about. My dear friends, my revolutionary comrades threw their fantasy away, and never revisited it. And no one ever asked what the fantasy of that long revolution actually was, or what became of the martyr’s fantasies. A revolution is like a dream. When it ends we all wake up, the dream fades and is forgotten. There is nothing in this world as fickle as a revolution.’
One of the novel’s central themes is revolution, vivified in the narrative via the philosophical quandary posed by Husni’s magical towel. Husni, a local towel merchant, owns a beautiful towel depicting the story of a king (realist) and a poet (idealist). On one side is a map depicting the tale of the king as he conquers an old city. On the other side is the same map, only more beautiful depicting the tale of the poet on his journey through the imagination.
As Husni’s towel changes hands throughout the novel, different characters have a go at interpreting the meaning behind the imagery. Who is more righteous? The poet or the king? Can poets and kings coexist? Can a king be a poet? Can a poet be a king? Must one slay the other? Can one slay the other? Which one slays the other? Is the king evil because he seeks power? Is the poet evil because he wields power but doesn’t wish to use it to better reality? And so on and so forth. Thus initiating an exciting discussion about imagination and reality in regards to the revolution. Not to mention the role of truth in all this.
I highly recommend I Stared at the Night of the City to anyone and everyone. The book had such a profound impact on my own ideas about the power of the imagination that I’d go as far as to include it in my personal canon. Its multiple layers and deep meaning makes it a novel I will most definitely be revisiting in the future.