The Sand Child

by Tahar ben Jelloun, translated by Alan Sheridan. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987. 165 pages.

A wealthy Moroccan potter has seven daughters. According to tradition the lack of a male heir not only shames him but will cause his property to pass to his brothers. He decides on a bold step: the next time his wife becomes pregnant the child will be a son. When his next child is born, his father gives a great feast and publishes a notice in the newspaper. The secret of the child's sex is kept by the father, his wife, and the midwife, and before long the father has almost convinced himself that he has a true son.

The Sand Child is the story of Mohammed Ahmed, the "son," who senses early that something is wrong and whose entire life is shaped and distorted by the secret. In the hands of another writer, this would be a comic situation, but Tahar ben Jelloun tells it with beautiful gravity, peeling back one layer after another of deception, desire, and identity. In keeping with its theme, the story is told through a series of masks and deceptions. A storyteller begins the tale, reading to his listeners from what he claims is the notebook of Mohammed Ahmed. He is not far into his account, however, when one of his hearers takes it over, claiming that he has the true words of Mohammed Ahmed, written on the pages of a cheap edition of the Koran. The second storyteller comes to an untimely end, and rather than let the story run into the desert without a resolution, two more men -- and one woman -- devise conclusions, each according to his or her understanding of what has gone before.

With its preoccupation with the nature of narrative, and its slightly antique atmosphere, the novel suggests the work of the great Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, and in the last pages of the book there appears what seems to be a tribute to Borges: the arrival from Buenos Aires of a blind writer and traveler, the owner of an extensive library, who intrigues all the listeners in the marketplace with his own additions to the tale of the "sand child."

The Sand Child is written in a rich and lyrical style that never becomes heavy and static, with a wealth of psychological subtlety and a sympathetic understanding of the difficult role of women in Moroccan society. Like its sequel, The Sacred Night, it is a tale that may haunt you.

From The Sand Child:

The secret was there, in those pages, woven out of syllables and images. He entrusted it to me just before he died. He made me swear not to open it until forty days after his death, long enough to allow him to die completely. Forty days of mourning for us and of journeying through the darkness of the earth for him. I opened it on the night of the forty-first day. I was overwhelmed by perfume. I read the first sentence and understood nothing. I read a paragraph and understood nothing. I read the whole of the first page and was illuminated. Tears of astonishment came to my eyes; my heart pounded. I was in possession of a rare book, a book containing a secret, spanning a brief, intense life, writen through the night of a long ordeal, hidden under large stones, and protected by the angel of malediction. This book, my friends, can be neither borrowed nor loaned. It cannot be read by innocent minds. The light that comes from it will blind those who are unprepared. I have read this book. I have deciphered it for others. You can gain access to it only by traversing my nights and my body. I am that book; I have paid with my life to read its secret. Having reached the end, after months of sleepless nights, I felt the book become embodied within me, for such is my aim.