A 350-PAGE TRIP TO HELL
Abdo Khal's ThrowingSparks doesn't wait to ease you gently into the dark and perverse journey you are about to undertake; instead it plunges without warning into a black hole, dragging you down with it, and soon, much like the protagonist, you too are falling and falling and falling.
The hero is introduced in the first few lines as a greying and jaded shadow of a man. You can smell his defeat, the stench of his existence wafting up as you turn the pages. And he doesn't deny it. In fact, at every possible opportunity Tariq reminds you of his perversion and his utter loss of hope of ever being able to “come back”. The story begins at the bottom and you are left with a mix of dread and intrigue at the thought of following his tale, going into the sordid details of his journey to depravity and being forced to relate to him.
From the shores of a boisterous Saudi fishing village to the glittering cage that is the Master's Palace, Tariq's story is about base instincts spiraling out of control, and the futility of trying to escape the past. Khal sows seeds of unease as he talks about the purity of young love and the perversions of lust in the same breath. Father, aunt, brother, friend, sweetheart – Tariq loses some, finds others, each time losing a little part of himself. You want to reach into the pages, snap him out of his decline and alert him to his impending fate.
Shrouded in secrecy, the Palace and its mysterious Master cast a constant shadow, both literally and figuratively, over Tariq's life. Immeasurable power and wealth have distorted the Master's psyche and in his quest for new exciting thrills, he uncaringly tramples on the lives of the people in his way. Tariq, in his haste to run away, willingly becomes one of his victims. The Master is rarely seen and barely heard from; his sinister commands inferred from a gesture, a look, a whisper. He ceases to be a character and becomes a malignant force of nature, like a firestorm – deadly and unpredictable.
Khal populates the book with rich metaphors; sometimes they fly thick and fast, one after the other, exhausting the reader. Facts and incidents are often repeated, without any real sense of why. But the poetry of his language cannot be denied. For instance, Tariq, talking about his pain and the struggle to reclaim at least some measure of humanity lost in his service of the Master, says, “There was no safe harbour for our wayward souls. Our wounded spirits carried on with their outpouring of pent-up grief until all our days and nights in Jeddah seemed like a journey through a vale of tears.” This kind of powerful imagery, found abundantly throughout the book, together with the sheer wretchedness of the story and the lack of redemption for any of the characters, stays with you long after you have shut the book.
Translated and published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, the “controversial and hard-hitting” paperback novel must be a treat to read in Arabic, and translators Maia Tabet and Michael K Scott must be commended on keeping the essence and beauty of the original lines intact. The book has so far been banned in three Arab countries: Jordan, Kuwait and Khal's home Saudi Arabia, where this former preacher and political science graduate continues to live and work.