One Hundred and One Nights by Benjamin Buchholz
Back Bay Books (December 2011)
With a title that evokes one of the best-known works of Middle-Eastern literature, Benjamin Buchholz’s debut novel depicts a modern war-torn world beset by endless conflict and filled with mystery, romance, deception, and intrigue.
Set in a post-Saddam Iraq that struggles to cope with the American occupation, the novel is narrated by Abu Saheeh (“Father Truth”), who has recently moved from Baghdad to open a mobile phone shop near the route of American convoys traveling back and forth from Kuwait. “Why has he moved here?” the reader asks, which is exactly what propels this story of sectarian revenge. Why, indeed. It appears from the beginning that Abu Saheeh is watching, spying on the Americans, but for whom? And to what end? It also develops that Abu Saheeh has lived in America for many years, and is actually fond of American pop culture. So if he plans an attack on the Americans, which is the reader’s best guess, what is his motivation? Who is behind it? But these aren’t the only questions that the reader wants answered. Every evening at his shop Abu Saheeh is visited by Layla, a young girl who seems to appear out of nothingness. She speaks of family, but none are seen. Abu Saheeh is interested in this girl. Why? And who is she?
The conflicts in the story are numerous, some personal, some political. Abu Saheeh’s family is a divided Sunni/Shia Muslim family. There are pro- and anti-Saddam factions in the city, as well as Iranian-trained and influenced jihadists, not to mention followers of Hezbollah. There’s an estranged brother, a jilted fiancée, an arranged marriage, an incompetent assistant, and an untrained security guard who may or may not be in a homosexual relationship with a waiter. All of which provide an opportunity for the reader to learn about this society and its tensions, but also, more importantly, provide fuel for a suspenseful and engaging fire.
If I have a complaint about the book, though, it’s that this first person narrator, who knows perfectly well what he’s doing and why, withholds that information from the reader, doling it out a little at a time. It’s one thing when an author does that in order to heighten suspense, but it can be infuriating when the narrator is manipulates the reader in this way. For example, each chapter ends with an italicized section that recounts Abu Saheeh’s sojourn in the U.S., his training and then practice as a doctor in Chicago. It also hints at developments in his personal life that turn out to be crucial and ultimately reveal his personal motivation for his actions. But if he has known all along what he was doing and why, why didn’t he tell us? Is it simply that he’s unreliable? That the reader must learn not to trust him?
And yet, his relationship with the mysterious Layla, about which Abu Saheeh is as confused as the reader, provides sufficient reason to stay with his story. We assume that eventually his motivation will become clear (it does), that his plans will be revealed (they are), and that Abu Saheeh and the reader will both come to understand who Layla is (maybe).
It’s a powerful and surprising debut novel.