Book review of Ahlem Mosteghanemi's Choas of the Senses
Ahlem Mosteghanemi’s Chaos of the Senses is the second instalment in an award – winning trilogy that cemented her reputation as the bestselling female author in the Arab world and a bona fide literary phenomenon. Set in the early 1990s at Algeria, which was being rocked by relentless political upheavals and mindless violence, the novel tackles the immortal themes of love and death, somehow infusing it with freshness and a robust heartiness.
Hayat, the daughter of a war hero and wife of a high – ranking government official whose job it is to snuff out any threats to the ruling regime seeks to detach herself from the unfolding strife around her and the iron fist of her husband by escaping into a world of heady passion that she herself has constructed with reckless abandon within the pages of her book, content to pour out the flames of her endless desire into a river of ink.
When one of Hayat’s characters steps into her real world, following a bizarre collusion of strange circumstances and stranger coincidences, she sees the opportunity for the romance of a lifetime and throwing caution to the winds, rushes headlong into a torrid affair. As she herself puts it so succinctly, “... the writing process in which I’d sought refuge from life would take me, albeit obliquely back towards life itself, thrusting me into a story that would one page after another, become my own.”
The happy blurring between the boundaries of reality and fiction takes a turn for the worse when her loyal driver of many years and a military man is killed during one of her reckless flights of fancy. But Hayat is too drunk on forbidden love and even as tragedy overtakes her homeland as well as family and threatens to consume herself as well, she is too far gone to even think of turning back.
Sucked into a swirling vortex of tender emotion and perfect kisses, Hayat is a willing captive content to ride, “the untamed steeds of longing (that) took her to him.” Her make – believe reality is powered by the language of silence and dialogues that take on the attributes of a supremely satisfying monologue played out in the private recesses of the mind and the exquisite lovemaking has an almost masturbatory quality to it taking the reader along on her on a tumultuous ride into the stormy depths of unshackled love and the overwhelming wonder and puzzlement it engenders.
Needless to say, in keeping with the precedent of every great love story ever written, death awaits at the final turning rather like the cold shower that has successfully doused many a heated loin and to return the player to a reality that has been stripped clean of every hint of passion, robbing it of flavour and leaving it as starkly unpalatable as ever. Thus, it is in allowing Chaos of the Senses to succumb to cliché that Mosteghanemi, succeeds in bringing it full circle.
An edited version of this review originally appeared in the New Indian Express. Check it out here.